It’s nighttime in the West African city of Kumasi, Ghana, and Prince Johnson sits watching a Spanish soap opera on TV when the family puppy starts yapping wildly outside. Jumping up and running out the door, Johnson is horrified to find the little dog in the grip of a boa constrictor that has slithered onto the dusty property. Unable to do anything to stop the attack, he can only watch as the snake slips away into the dark, the dog still yapping into the distance. But as night gives way to the soft light of dawn, Johnson is surprised yet again: Here comes the dog, free from what seemed a certain death, limping home.
Such is life in Ghana, a place of such contradictions that wild and tame clash at the doorstep, poverty and wealth live side by side, and the origins of the slave trade are kept alive so that the free will never forget.
Ten Xavier students spent the spring semester in the developing country as part of the University’s academic service-learning semester program, living with host families, studying and serving at local orphanages and shelters, and facing the country’s contradictions daily—trying to make sense of a boy’s inability to read or how a home for mentally handicapped adults keeps operating without money.
Ghana is the fourth site in the program, which is now in its 11th year. It was added this year and rotates with the program’s other sites—Nicaragua, India, which recently replaced Nepal because of that country’s political instability, and Cincinnati’s downtown neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, where students work with the urban poor.
The Ghana site adds diversity to the program by expanding it to a fourth continent, says Kathleen Smythe, an associate professor of history who participated in Ghana’s selection. “It’s important as we pursue greater diversity here to have some experiences available for our students in Africa because of the historical connection and also because increasingly that’s where the world’s poorest people are living,” she says.
The students—four men and six women—earned 15 credit hours studying the Twi language, African literature and theology, and taking a class on service-learning that complemented their volunteer work. Their days began when the rooster crowed at 5:00 a.m. and ended around 9:00 p.m. when their host families went to bed. They went to their service sites in the mornings, to class in the afternoons and then back home to the families, who overwhelmed the students with their hospitality and generosity. They fed them abundant plates full of home-cooked concoctions, all with a starchy base of cassava, yams or rice, gave them a bed, Ghanaian names, a rank in the family and a bunch of siblings.
“When I first met my family, my mother gave me a big hug and said, ‘You are my daughter.’ She asked how old I am and she said, ‘You are my eldest,’ and that’s how they’ve treated me,” says Katie Hunt, a junior majoring in English. “They call me Akosia for Sunday-born.”
The students also took trips away from their new homes to learn more about the Ghanaian culture and country. They spent a night in a rain forest, walked across a canopy bridge 200 feet high and toured the ancient castles in Cape Coast that became “the point of no return” for many Africans sold into slavery. They descended into the dungeons where the captives were held before boarding the ships and toured the space where unruly slaves were thrown and left to die without food or water. Proximity to those dungeons was a prime factor in Ghana’s selection, says Patrick Welage, associate director for the academic service-learning program.
“It was an important factor because of Cincinnati where we have so much racial tension,” Welage says. “These students will have a different perspective of the broader story of slavery. For Xavier, this is a significant piece of what we do and do well.”
While the program and its objectives fit in well with the University’s Jesuit mission, it was no vacation. Every day it was sizzling hot, the temperature pushing 100 degrees, and dusty with smog and dirt. Though the calendar read February, it was like August in America’s Deep South—hazy steel-colored skies and not a breath of cool air.
There were light moments, such as learning how to use the public transportation system of privately owned vans called “tro-tros.” They learned to run from one to another until the mate, or assistant, would yell out the destination they wanted, and then they’d spring aboard, elbowing others out of the way.
The students also delighted in the spiritual names the Ghanaians give their businesses: the God Knows Mushroom Shop, the Finger of God Nail Salon. “God is everywhere here,” Johnson says. “God is in Ghana. It’s part of everyday life.”
But the trip also created emotional struggles, such as trying to cope with reality while serving at the Life Community Home for mentally handicapped adults.
“There’s no money, no resources and they’re trying to be creative and come up with ways to keep it running,” says Sarah Kroeger, a junior psychology student. “It’s a really big challenge.”
For Johnson, the only African-American student on the trip, it was the emotional toll of facing the loss of his heritage. “I was confused by the practice of taking Africans to the New World and also by Africans selling each other,” he says. “Standing in the surf, I realized that it’s not my fault I was stripped of my culture, but also I’m in West Africa where I can learn about my culture, my identity and me as a human being.
“I can grieve over the process, but I can also wipe my tears and realize everything that was taken away, I can have it back now.”