Year 2: January Term Week 3

Hello all,

If you haven't read my previous Ghana posts, feel free to take a look here and here.

As of yesterday, I'm safely in Abu Dhabi and settled into my new dorm. I meant to post last night, but I was so exhausted from travel and unpacking that I fell asleep instead, haha. Now that I'm back to the U.A.E.'s Friday-Saturday weekends, posts will be on Saturday nights and I'll do my best to get back to a consistent routine.

Being back on campus here is really amazing but also kind of weird. I'll write more on it next week, but it's kind of like being transported back in time to freshman year, because it's almost as though I've never been away, but every so often something will be just different enough to remind me that time has passed, so it's a little bit disorienting. Like suddenly entering a parallel universe where everything has shifted just a bit. My new dorm is on the opposite side of campus from the freshman dorms, but I keep instinctively walking to the freshman side and then remembering I don't live there.

Back to the Saadiyat Island life

If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked "So, how was Shanghai?" I'd be much richer than before.

I'm SO glad I got to reunite with my friends here. Lots of hugs all around and the campus atmosphere is just really fun right now with people coming back (though some have gone away this semester as well). A group of my friends even surprised me with a "welcome back" cake, which was super sweet of them:
It's a little hard to see in the picture, but the black frosting says "Welcome Home"
Today was the first day of class, but I think I'll write more about that next week and focus on Ghana in this post.

The last week in Ghana was mostly good but a little crazy. A few of my classmates got sick (thankfully nothing too serious, but one of them ended up in the hospital with food poisoning). The water in the dorms shut off a few times for no apparent reason. We also had a final paper and a final presentation due the same day, which of course most of us procrastinated until the last minute. We also had to move out of the dorms and into a hotel, because the NYU Accra staff needed to get the rooms ready for the spring semester people who were arriving.  This was good for two reasons- 1) no more waking up to obnoxious rooster crowing and 2) the hotel had a pool and the weather was perfect for swimming!

I don't have nearly as many pictures from this week, because by this point we had already done most of the touristy stuff in the city. However, we still got to have a lot of interesting and educational experiences.

We had a few interesting guest speakers in class. One was a public health official/ doctor who talked in great detail about the diseases and sanitation problems that are prevalent in rural areas of Ghana (with graphic pictures). Definitely interesting, and I have huge respect for the work he does, but I really didn't need to see so many pictures of flesh-eating bacteria. Makes me thankful for clean water and the life I have.

Since the class was on Wealth and Inequality, some parts of it emphasized economics and finance. The next guest speaker worked for a microfinance institution based in Ghana, which gives small, low-interest loans to people trying to start business. We did some reading and had a discussion with him about how these small loans can be a pathway to lift people out of poverty.

Along these lines, I also went with a friend to an Accra-based startup incubator called MEST. They offer entrepreneurship classes and seed funding to regional startups, and we got to tour their facility and meet some of the people who run the program. It was such an interesting and diverse work environment for technology--Silicon Valley meets Ghana--- the kind of thing I'd love to be involved in after graduation if I ever get a chance.

We also went on a tour of an area of the city called Nima. While Ghana is about 70% Christian and 20% Muslim, the neighborhood of Nima is closer to 50% Muslim. Apparently, a lot of people in this community have immigrated from Muslim-majority African countries like Mali and Senegal. Now that they are here, they really consider themselves Ghanaians though, which I thought was kind of cool.

We first met with a tribal chief and his wife in their small "palace" which was really not much bigger than a regular room with a wooden throne in it, but still pretty cool.
Tribal Chief and his Queen
The Chief is also the religious leader (imam) for the tribe, so a lot of people come to him to ask religious questions and mediate in disagreements. We had a question-and-answer session where he talked a bit about his duties as the chief and gave us some background information about the community.

We then walked through the market and visited a mosque. I couldn't get a lot of pictures because most people, especially women, didn't want to have their pictures taken (understandably) and the streets were too crowded even to get photos of just the general area without bothering people. Here's one though.

A definite highlight of this trip was an outing to a restaurant called Zen Garden. They had a band performing traditional songs, and at one point, they asked for volunteers to come join them on stage and improvise with them. Since our friend group was pretty much the only group of tourists there, we all volunteered, and they handed us a bunch of random percussion instruments: bongo-like drums, large floor drums, and shakers with shells. We had SO much fun playing along with the band, and the music style was polyrhythmic in such a way that you could pretty much play whatever rhythms you wanted on the drums, as long as they loosely followed the beat, and it would sound okay.

Local band that let us join an improv session

I also tried something that I suppose is a Ghanaian take on an ice cream sundae... vanilla ice cream with peanuts on top of warm fried plantains. The plantains had a spicy/sweet seasoning that mixed so well with the ice cream.

One of my favorite parts of Accra was simply walking around the streets and seeing what there was to see. Even though there are a lot of public transportation options, a lot of people get around on foot as well, and I think that in Ghana, the distance that is considered "walkable" is further than maybe what we would think of as "walkable" in the U.S. When I travel, there's something about taking the common mode of transportation that really makes me feel part of the city and helps me get a sense of the culture. In Shanghai, it was renting the bikes. Here, it was walking around the dusty streets. 

Anyway, after we finished the final assignments, we parted ways, and those of us returning to Abu Dhabi flew from Accra to Cairo (6 hours), then from Cairo to Abu Dhabi (4 hours). EgyptAir is not really the nicest airline (no seat-back movie screens during a 6-hour flight, ugh), especially compared to the luxury of the U.A.E. airlines Emirates Air and Etihad, but EgyptAir got us to where we needed to go, so I can't complain. On the way to Ghana, though, NYUAD put me on South African Air from Washington D.C., and it was a surprisingly nice airline! 

I'm trying to make sense of the lessons I've learned from being in Ghana, because I think it's important to save them for future reference. Most of these things are things I knew logically before, but seeing them firsthand gave me a different perspective. I'll list a few although there are probably a lot more that I can't put into words right now: 

1) Poverty is a lot more complicated to solve than it seems. Poverty stems from so many factors including government corruption, lack of education, poor infrastructure/sanitation, poor quality of healthcare, cultural practices, colonial history, tribal conflicts... the list goes on.    

2) For this reason, attempts to solve poverty without understanding the culture, economy, politics, etc. of the area you are "helping" will fail 99% of the time. 

3) The western media paints a picture of Africa that tends to show only part of the reality. The poverty is real, but there are also people who live middle-class and upper-class lives, fancy restaurants, upscale hotels, the whole deal. There are people who do dances in traditional clothing, but also people who wear suits and work as investment bankers or whatever. Probably some investment bankers who also do traditional dances, and that's cool too. The media tends to focus on the most "exotic" aspects because this is how they obtain donations and tourists. 

4) Slavery was a horrible, awful, dehumanizing thing. The divide-and-conquer approach of European colonial powers has really messed up a pretty large portion of the world, even decades after independence. In some places in the world, "slavery" still exists in forms like human trafficking and forced labour, and I think we would do more to fix it if we understood the severity of it. Also, a lot of smaller issues just generally come from objectifying people, treating people as less than human, etc. and it's scary how easily human minds fall into this pattern of thinking. 

5) Access to education is a huge privilege and blessing. 

6) I've learned enough about the culture and atmosphere here to feel more comfortable traveling in this region in the future. It's probably not the most comfortable place in the world to live long-term, but these days I find myself wanting so much more out of life than comfort. You never know. 

 7)  It's easy to think that the things you've experienced are the "right way" or the "default way" of doing something, but that's not necessarily true. For example, even though some things are standardized, there is no single "correct" version of English. Even though I have some issues understanding the Ghanaian accent, it's not incorrect, it's just different, like British English or Australian English or anything else. This concept applies to a lot of other things, and I'm working on fighting the instinct to label things that are different as "weird" or "incorrect". I think we all do this, to some extent.  

8) I really think Ghana has a lot of potential for development in the next 10-20 years. At this point, it could go either way, but I'm really looking forward to following what happens there over the years. It sounds sappy, but it feels like every time I go to a new country, I leave a little piece of my heart there. 

Anyway, hope you all stay safe, happy, and healthy! 

It feels so great that I can say this again: Goodnight from Saadiyat Island!

Love to all,

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  1. Hey Alison, I really love what you wrote about Ghana. It's very interesting and even eye-opening to know how people from other countries perceive my country. It's awesome!!


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