Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 5 - Tema/Accra to Cape Town

Begging to Become a Shellback at King Neptune Day!

Participants and Teachers at GNG Videoconferences at GIMPA
(Distance Learning Center in Ghana)

Cape Coast Slave Castle

GNG Videoconference with Kwesi at Cape Coast Castle

Plaque at the Cape Coast Slave Castle

God is Good Electrical Shop in Accra

Accra, Cape Coast and Tema – A Life-Changing Sojourn

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
-Maya Angelou

AKWAABA to Ghana!

This word, that means “welcome” in Twi, one of the several languages spoken in Ghana, was uttered by the wonderful Ghanaians that I met during my short time there. I was treated like family by so many amazing people that the word is very symbolic of how welcomed and cared for I felt during my entire time in Ghana. AKWAABA was also written on all of the billboards that announced President Obama’s visit last July, so it seemed appropriate to begin this week’s installment with this great declaration:

AKWAABA to my blog!

Poster commemorating President Obama’s visit to Ghana
(This one does not say AKWAABA)

So many things about Ghana made me happy, namely the many marvelous Ghanaians that I met. However, I particularly loved to read the placards for the local businesses during our numerous road trips in Ghana. I saw similar signs in Tanzania, but Ghana won for the most businesses named after Biblical references (I even took a picture of the “God is Good” business, as seen above). Some of my favorites were:

- God is Good Electrical Shop
- The Blood of Jesus Sewing
- The Lord is My Shepherd Auto Parts
- He has Risen Bakery
- God’s Grace Beauty Salon

Goodness, we are nearly at Week 6 at Semester at Sea (SAS), and I am just getting caught up on Week 5! So much happens, both on the ship and in port, that I don’t think I will ever truly be able to adequately describe all that has happened, but at least I can try to provide some highlights, especially for those who have never visited Ghana (or been part of SAS). My mother is so funny – she wrote and told me that I fall in love with every country I visit! I guess that’s the “curse” of global citizenship – a gift that my parents gave me at a very young age. My first teddy bear was named U.N. (I got it at a U.N. Children’s Day) – go figure! Sadly, I lost him in Costa Rica, but I am over it. The same held true of my time in Ghana. I leave part of my heart in every place that I visit, and gain so much more in the process.

Before I start sharing some stories from my time in Ghana, I’d like to write about some cool and crazy things that I did on the ship this week:

Last Saturday morning, we crossed the Equator, and celebrated King Neptune Day, where the Captain of the ship, dressed as Neptune, gave us permission to become shellbacks (pollywogs who have crossed the Equator), after going through a nutty initiation ceremony. It consisted of a slimy pink/brown concoction that was poured on my head (which was supposed to resemble sea sludge, but looked more like the slime at the Teen Choice Awards), after which I jumped into a disgusting swimming pool filled with said slime. The last two initiation rites were to kiss a dead fish and be “knighted” by one of the King’s Sea Knights before kissing the Queen’s ring and bowing before King Neptune (i.e., “Dean Bob” from the University of Virginia – see the photo above of my humble pleading to become a shellback. Dad, you should have paid for the drama lessons – I still don’t have an adequate place to put my ‘hamness’ – these poor SAS’ers!! Bro, maybe you can help, but probably not! I think my hubby could, actually.). Normally I don’t follow the pack mentality (especially if you had seen the pool when I jumped in), but it was an old maritime tradition, and 100s of SAS faculty, staff and students were doing it, so I thought, “Why Not?” As you can see, it was great fun, but kinda gross! Some of the girls were so into it that they shaved their heads! I know you only live once, but you have to have a really nice-shaped head to shave all of your hair off, in my opinion. To each her own!

Another cool thing that happened this week is that I got a tour of the bridge of the MV Explorer. It’s a very sophisticated operation up there. The ship often runs on auto-pilot. I was fascinated by all of the equipment. I even got to sit in Captain Jeremy’s chair! Don’t worry – he did not look like the Incredible Hulk that day!

A third experience that I’d like to share is that I heard a talk by one of the Living/Learning Coordinators (i.e., Resident Directors) called “Hurricane Katrina: A Survivor’s Story.” The woman who spoke is a disaster relief specialist with a background in public health. She and her parents had to take refuge in a church in Mississippi during the hurricane. It was so moving to listen to her – she is an incredibly good speaker. It’s one of the best talks I have ever heard in my life, hands down. I learned a lot more about the aftermath of the hurricane and how people lived (and are continuing to cope) through such a harrowing ordeal. Sadly, this woman lost everything from her home in New Orleans, and had to start over in many ways. I feel privileged to know her.

Now I am blogging from one of the signature courses at Semester at Sea called Global Studies. The professor has tried to distill countless facts and figures from several countries down into hour-long lectures. I think he has done a good job – what a challenging task! Actually, I would love to teach a global studies course one day – right up my alley. Today, in preparation for our arrival in Cape Town on Saturday, the prof spoke about South Africa in a post-apartheid age. He shared a very cool personal story with us. He co-taught a course with a South African member of parliament named Barbara in the mid-90’s. Well, during their teaching, Barbara had heard that newly-elected President Nelson Mandela had picked someone for a cabinet post that she did not agree with at all! So, during the course of their joint lecture, she proceeded to call President Mandela directly, and told him how she felt! The professor was amazed, as you can imagine, that she had a direct line to Mandela! He assured her that this person needed to be there, as they had been a large part of the African National Congress movement to end apartheid in South Africa.

Now I’ll share a personal anecdote from one of my favorite experiences at Teachers College. In 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was speaking at our Masters’ graduation ceremony. I was honored to be asked to pick him up from a private airport in New Jersey and personally escort him to the campus. Well, when the driver and I got there, we arrived at the wrong hanger, and I had a short panic attack. I did not want to call the External Affairs office to tell them that we had lost the Archbishop!! So, finally we located him at a different hanger. When I met the honorable Archbishop, I was quite nervous, but he reached out and gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming to get him! I asked him if he would be my grandfather, and he told me “Yes, I have many grandchildren around the world.” We rode back to campus, pretty much in silence, but he was kind enough to ask me about my life, family and schooling. I did not ask him much in return, because I could tell that he wanted to sit in quiet contemplation. We did not even play the radio during the hour-long drive. It is an experience that is very dear to my heart that I shall never forget.

As many of you know, South Africa is one of the most diverse, multicultural countries in the world with a tragic past and, at times, shaky present, especially with the advent of the AIDS pandemic. One of the South African students on the ship gave a workshop called “1 in 3” – meaning one out of three South Africans has most likely contracted HIV. I have been to South Africa twice, and was enamored by the striking geographic beauty of Cape Town, as well as the amazing people I met. I was laughing to myself, thinking about a story that an old American friend shared with me when we were roommates in Cape Town in 2002 for a graduate course.

It went something like this:

Roommate: “You won’t believe how clueless some of my friends are! When I told them I was going to South Africa, one of them asked, ‘Is that a country?’ Then, another friend told me to have fun and try to pet some baby Bengal tigers, like Sigfreid and Roy. I told them that tigers are found in Asia, and lions are found in Africa.”

Me: Dead silence. I was too shocked to say anything. Then I said, “No way!” Then we burst out laughing.

We were not making fun of anyone, but it was pretty funny the way she relayed it to me! I am sure I have had many moments of cultural incompetency like that in my own life. Actually, I used to call Afghans “Afghanis,” which is the local currency. I was kindly corrected by an Afghan.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my time in Ghana.

The Tema port was quite far from the main port gate, and Tema is about an hour from Accra, so we spent a great deal of time in taxis and buses getting to and from the videoconference programs (which were held near the University of Ghana), some of which are local mini-vans called “tro tros.” The tro tros reminded me of the mini-vans in Tanzania – I am sure that many African countries have similar modes of transportation. It was great to ride the tro tro. We were certainly a source of curiosity for many of the Ghanaians, but we wound up having great conversations as a result. In fact, even though Ghana is in the West, and Tanzania is in the East, these two nations have some things in common, especially with regard to fabrics. Case in point, I was wearing a Tanzanian blouse made out of kitenge cloth, and one of the Ghanaian teachers gave me a big hug and thanked me for wearing a Ghanaian top! I told her it was Tanzanian, and she smiled even more, learning that many of the dyed cloths were the same.

Speaking of videoconferences, the cross-cultural conversations that were shared by the U.S. and Ghanaian youth were some of the most powerful I have ever witnessed in my short tenure at GNG. Since English is spoken quite fluently by most Ghanaians, the students really understood one another. They went beyond formalities and connected at a much deeper level. Students spoke of racism, globalization, immigration, popular culture, among many other topics. Students even sang their national anthems for each other! I told the U.S. students that we had a lot to learn from the Ghanaian young people, because the rendition that the American students sang was in about 10 different keys, and the Ghanaian students sang as one, and sounded like a beautiful choir. The final videoconference, between a high school in New Jersey and a high school in Accra was truly remarkable. The Ghanaian students took the time to write down the names of the students from New Jersey so that they could ask direct questions of individuals. A Ghanaian student even asked about cheerleading and popularity, because she had seen cheerleaders in American films. The cheerleader from NJ was shocked that her Ghanaian peer remembered her name that it took her a moment to answer. She was so touched that it looked like she might choke up. A Ghanaian young man also spoke about President Obama’s visit, and how it changed his life forever, along with millions of African youth. He said that he believes now that he can accomplish just about anything, if he works hard and applies himself.

At the end of the session (that went much too quickly) students from New Jersey asked the students from Accra what they might like for a gift, and the Ghanaian students responded by saying that although they might like a lot of things personally, they were representing their school, so the gift should be sent to benefit the entire school. Students from Accra asked the same thing, and a student from New Jersey asked for some local Ghanaian “high life” music. I believe that the students will try to stay in touch, and we hope to facilitate more virtual conversations with them soon.

As powerful and positive as those videoconference sessions were, our visit to the Cape Coast Slave Castle hit me to the core of my soul and I found it difficult to breathe. I cried and mourned with tears that would not come, which has never happened to me before. It’s because my soul was sobbing from the inside. When I was down in the male slave cell, I saw a bunch of wreathes that were placed to honor the ancestors. I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw the Obama Family wreathe. Our tour guide told us that we were walking on the remains of our ancestors, which I physically felt. I won’t be able to write much about the effects it had on me personally – being in those cells, because there is too much to wade through on so many levels, especially emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I do know that social justice – in all of its forms – is at the top of my list. Suffice it to say, I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that every American, at some point in their life, either virtually or physically, should learn about these Slave Castles and make their own sojourn to see them. The reason why (in my opinion) is that each person experiences their visit to the Castles in such an individual way, depending on their background and history. Since every American was affected by 100s of years of slavery, either directly or indirectly, these Castles – and their role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Route - should be spoken about much more in high schools. I know sooooooooo much is lacking in U.S. history courses, but hopefully things are changing. I regret that I did not learn more about the Slave Castles earlier on in life, other than hearing about them briefly in school and from friends who had been there. None of them could really talk about it, and I can now understand why. I believe that America’s future could be brighter if every American took it upon themselves to learn more about our collective history, with the Castles acting as a catalyst or symbol of a devastating and painful past. It was hard for me to hear when I heard later from some SAS’ers that they had felt nothing by being there, but I am not going to judge. Sometimes it takes a while to grasp the profundity of a situation – some people have to take a step back in order to reflect upon things. That’s the beauty of being human – no two people experience something in the same way.

Regarding the Cape Coast Castle, GNG was honored and fortunate enough to broadcast a live videoconference from the Cape Coast Slave Castle with a brilliant museum educator named Kwesi. He had given the Obama family their own personal tour of the Castle when they came in July. I asked him how it was to meet President Obama, and I really liked his response. He said that he had read “Dreams from My Father,” to learn about Obama as a man, and not just as a President. Therefore, they had a lot of heart to heart conversations because Kwesi interacted with him at a much more personal level. What an insightful man. Let me tell you, this videoconference with Kwesi, a school in New Jersey and a school in Canada, was in the top 10 of all videoconferences ever hosted by GNG. Kwesi is an erudite scholar who has been giving tours of the Cape Coast Castle for 10 years, and has even written a book about it. So, you can imagine that his responses to the students’ questions just blew us all away. We had a clear shot of the castle via the satellite, which made it all the more real for the students. Their questions to Kwesi were right on point as well. We could have gone on for hours, but the satellite cut off after only about a half hour, much to our chagrin. We’ll post a link to the conference soon on GNG’s videoconference archives so that you can view it. The Director of the Castle told us that he was inspired to see how they might get a virtual museum education program off the ground in the future, as a result of watching the students interact with Kwesi. It really was a surreal experience to spend the day at the Castle and with Kwesi. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same, but I can’t tell you how I might change, because I am waiting for my soul to catch up to my heart and mind in order to fully process the experience.

Here is a link to the Castle Museum:

Phew - not sure if I should write anything more. I do wish I could have stayed in Ghana longer! I think I will end here with my writing and just leave all of us to ponder the following plaque that I saw at the Cape Coast Castle - which is found at the top of the blog.

We arrive in Cape Town on Saturday, October 3rd.

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