Penn Global Seminars Looking Back at PGS Ghana

October 31, 2019
By Penn Abroad

Featuring the Penn Global Seminar (PGS) Culture, Health, and Development in Ghana. This seminar is being offered again during Spring 2020, more information can be found on the PGS Course Offerings page.

During the Spring 2019 semester, twenty Penn students participated in the Penn Global Seminar Culture, Heath, and Development in Ghana, which is a semester-long course offered through Africana Studies and Penn Nursing. Beginning on Penn’s campus, students spent the first seven weeks of the course studying cross-cultural work and ethical considerations, research methods, the history of aid and development in Africa, and other topics significant to health and development in the continent. Over spring break, the students traveled to Ghana and joined students from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). They spent the week visiting three critical cities in Ghana: Accra- the diverse capital city, Kumasi- home of the Asante Empire, and Cape Coast- the port city of the Transatlantic slave trade.

In these cities, they explored heritage sites to make connections between cultures and shared histories. They also met community leaders and learned about grassroots and institutional health and development initiatives The course was designed by Anastasia Shown (Africana Studies), Robin Stevens, Ph.D. (Nursing) and Don Amrago, a researcher at the Technology Consultancy Center, KNUST. Amrago, affectionately known to the group as Uncle Don, recruited the ten Ghanaian students who learned alongside the Penn students. These students helped the Penn students navigate Ghana and showed them an insider perspective. They also showed the group a good time and taught them hiplife songs and dances. They asked hard questions and responded to the Penn students’ hard questions graciously and with such openness that is unique to Ghanaian people.

Each day of the trip the students rededicated themselves to the program and pushed through discomfort to engage on a deeper level. Some got sick, others were exhausted, some missed home. Yet, they experienced rapid personal growth and the birth of sincere friendships.

In Accra, they deepened their understanding of historical and contemporary Ghanaian politics by visiting the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum- where Ghana’s first president, Pan African icon, and Penn alum is buried. They had a private meeting with the first female Chief of Staff to the President of Ghana, Akosua Frema Osei-Opare. She talked to the group about gender equality in government and civil society and proudly noted Ghana’s leading efforts in Africa. The group toured Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, the oldest in Ghana, with Dr. Nana Essuman Oduro, a Specialist Obstetrician who talked to the students about global health partnerships and the unique challenges he sees among his patients. They received a lecture from Dr. Yvonne Brew, a hematologist, about sickle cell disease and the socio-cultural elements of care. Students also met with researchers and scientists at U.S.Pharmacopeia-Ghana where professionals from 40 African countries have been trained in pharmaceutical regulation and quality assurance. The group even enjoyed some downtime at Labadi Beach and the Woods Lounge, which is managed by Penn Alum, Maxwell Sencherey-Taylor ‘15.

In Kumasi the group toured another hospital, Komfo Anokeye Teaching Hospital, the second-largest in Ghana. This time the tour was led by a group of nurse leaders. Some of the group visited Rights & Responsibilities Initiatives Ghana, an NGO that works on women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and good governance. Led by Executive Director, Aba Oppong, the group got to interact with the Queen Mother, Nana Adwoa Pinamang III, and the Sheiks of the Bekwai Zongo Community. Other students visited the Boomers Bamboo Bikes company led by founder, Kwabena Danso. Started as a small community organization only 10 years ago, today he has sold 4,000 locally made bikes to the international market and employs 40 workers. Students got their hands dirty in a metal engineering workshop in Suame Magazine- one of the largest industrial zones in Africa with more than 200,000 artisan workers. On Ghana’s Independence Day, March 6th, the class celebrated by learning about Kente cloth, Adinkra symbols, and cocoa in the village of Adanwomase. Students got to practice the weaving, stamp their own symbols, and taste raw cocoa. They heard from Peter Paul Ankako, founder of Kente Master, a company that connects kente weavers to international markets, and Plus One Life, a non-profit emergency rescue operation.

In Cape Coast, the group hiked through the canopy walk at Kakum National Park. The protected land is 145 square miles of tropical forest. The most significant of the trip was the visit to Elmina Castle. At this UNESCO World Heritage site, millions of Africans (30,000 each year) were shipped into slavery to the Americas never to return again. 2019 marks 400 years since African slaves were taken to North America. Ghana has declared 2019 the Year of Return. The campaign welcomes the African Diaspora to Ghana and validates the struggles, strengths, and linkages between all African descendants. African and American histories are inextricably linked, yet rarely taught as a shared history. After the group looked out of the Door of No Return, they reflected and processed in groups on the beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. They confronted this divide in dialogue and tears and took a few steps closer to unification.

In reflection students shared these thoughts:

Nakeeya Garland, an Africana Studies major, said “There is a great possibility that I am the first in my family to return to West Africa since enslavement, which is both an exciting and saddening idea...At the end of the day, I cannot turn back the clock and ignore enslavement, but I also do not have to be Ghanaian to have a relationship with Ghana or, more broadly, African to have a relationship with Africa.”

Liz Lazarus, a Health & Societies major, said, “I gained a greater understanding of my position in the diaspora. After visiting the slave castle, my knowledge of slavery was now accompanied by a physical place and experiences which humanized the reality of slavery for me. I began to think of those who came before me and my ancestors who survived and those who did not. This was such an eye-opening experience for me and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity.”

Stephen Chukwurah, a graduating Health & Societies major, reflected, “So many courses I have taken at Penn have discussed the histories and contexts of colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and neocolonial influences in the form of significant aid and relief to the continent. But, I think through all the historical noise and contingencies, I hungered most for a vision of Africa today from the perspective of its people. I believe this is what made me feel so relaxed and attentive and engaged the entire trip.”

Nursing students made connections to their future practice:

“After discovering Ghanaian people, culture, and healthcare in this way (visiting to learn, rather than coming solely to “help”), I am challenged to explore the type of nursing care I hope to provide in the future, and the ways that I can make a genuine difference, whether that is back at home in the States or abroad... the widely-held Western perception of Africa (heavily influenced by the media that we consume) is inaccurate and incomplete, and something that we (as Americans) should work to change,” said Cami Dang, a Nursing major.

Ruth Lee, a Nursing major said, “I see Ghana as a beautiful country with a horrific history of slavery and oppression; but along with this, there have been times of great overthrow and continual fight against oppression, such as becoming independent from the British. This spirit of justice manifests itself beautifully in Ghanaian society to be a force that is infinitely inspiring and makes an impression I want to absorb and express to others. Through this trip, I have a deeper sense of conviction to work in the field of global health and development.” 

“Learning about the history of Ghana and the life of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah made me reflect on myself as an individual and how far I can go to advocate for others. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah could have easily stayed in the  U.S. or any other country of his choice and developed himself and his career, but he left all that to go back to fight for freedom. Until now this is a lesson that still resonates with me and I truly hope one day I can be as courageous as he was to boldly stand for the right cause,” said Ornella Ingabire, a Nursing major.

Other students found great inspiration from the grassroots projects they visited:

“Throughout the week, we explored so many exciting new things. One of my favorite visits was to Yonso Project, where we witnessed the work of a man who created a whole business selling bamboo bikes to international partners. I was inspired but his poise, creativity, and willingness to show us the empire he created. This visit definitely touched on the development aspect of Ghana and gave me a greater understanding of the grassroots movements that are truly improving development from the ground up,” said Maya Moore, Health & Societies major.

Samelle Arhin, a Nursing major, said, “Hearing about Kente Masters brought me so much pride as I listened to Peter Paul’s innovation. I was surprised that despite his identity as a Northerner he tapped into an industry managed predominantly by Kumasi Kente producers. I realize that his education is what made the difference and connected him to an art form and clothing expression that was not characteristic of his own culture. In addition to pride, I felt remorse for the appropriation of kente by Chinese manufacturers...This led me to ponder on the value of authenticity of a product over speed in delivery time.”

All of the students expressed deep gratitude and learned more about themselves:

“The most impactful thing was fully experiencing and embracing the paradox of recognizing extreme similarities and extreme differences. Though we talked about the concept of it before leaving, being immersed in simultaneous sameness and difference was an entirely unique experience for me,” said Ashley Gilmore, Sociology major.

Nikki Thomas, an Africana Studies major said, “Life, in general, is more social: buying is bartering, bartering is a conversation. Dancing is accepted, expected, mandatory. Things mean things, there is more in a name than just a name. My eyes were opened to how much of my everyday life I would spend doing mundane, surface-level things, and it pushed me to seek deeper and more meaningful pursuits. From my friends, I know that Ghana is more a place of trust than anywhere else I know...I know that Ghanaian people are welcoming, that many are both avid learners and teachers, that arriving late after walking in the heat with friends and mosquitos can be better than getting there on time in a cool taxi. I took note of the people and things around me for the first time in a while, and was surprised at how much I had been missing.”

Michael Schwoerer, graduating Biology major, reflected, “The difference between my understanding of Ghana before and after the trip is profound. I am by far not an expert, but I learned more than any reading, lecture, video, or podcast ever could have taught me, simply by the end of the first day. I am profoundly grateful for all those who had a hand in this trip...Now that I’m advanced in years and waxing retrospective of my time at Penn, I can confidently say that this has been among the most important, impactful experiences of my undergraduate career.”

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