Last summer I was in Africa for the first time. I went to Morocco on vacation. It was glorious. This time I’m off to Ghana, West Africa. This is not a vacation as I am traveling with nine students and two adults, but every kind travel feels like vacation to me. A gift. This is a decidedly different kind of Africa than what I experienced in Marrakesh, but it will be glorious, I am sure, in its own way. I have yet to reach a destination that has disappointed me because I learn something new about the world and its people every. single. time.
We’re going to the small village of Breman Essiam as part of Westtown School’s Senior Projects. For two weeks, the students will teach classes to middle school children at Heritage Academy and we will all do service projects like making bricks for school repairs and tending Heritage’s new chicken farm. Our students have chosen to teach topics that are close to them and unusual for Heritage kids like creative writing, dance, acting, singing, biology, leadership skills, and a mini robotics/programming course.
As with every trip with students to an environment so vastly different from our own, I consider what’s in store. I try to imagine what lessons there are to learn and to foresee challenges we might face. For this journey, I’ve been thinking about how the students (and we adults) will reconcile being haves among have nots. We’re bringing 12 extra suitcases filled with shoes for villagers, laptops for the school, teaching materials, and a few soccer balls. It feels good to know that we’re providing desperately needed items and that our service will be welcome and useful. But I worry about the ego of it all, of falling too easily into the pride of helping, of reinforcing a tacit heirarchy. Our bags will be packed with our clothes, shoes, and sundry items, but also our privilege. The privilege of wealth, mobility, opportunity, and probably some privileges of which we are as yet unaware. (Like the constancy of electricity and sturdy plumbing.)
I think too, quite honestly, about being a minority in the environment. For many of the group, this will be the first experience of being minorities and outsiders. I have learned that Ghanaians use the word obroni which can mean both white person and foreigner. They are known to call it out on the street. Yet it does not carry a such a negative connotation as pejorative terms for minorities in the US; it is merely descriptive. Because of this, I cannot imagine that it will make us feel anything close to the burden that minorities are made to feel in this country, especially in this current climate of social and political unrest. I don’t even remotely pretend to know what that feels like. And yet, what will we make of having our differences called out, remarked upon as we walk down the street? What will it feel like to stand out because of the color our skin, the shape of our eyes, and the texture of our hair? How will we react to assumptions made about us because of where we come from? How we end up answering those questions are likely to be the most valuable lessons we learn. I am eager to explore both the discomfort and the illumination of this aspect of our experience. Even if it’s difficult, it will be good for all of us.
I’m also eager for the students to witness Kwesi Koomson and his wife, Melissa Schoerke Koomson (former teachers at Westtown School) in action. Kwesi had dream to build a different kind of school in his hometown of Breman Essiam. This large, looming figure with a delightfully infectious smile wanted to provide opportunities for the people of his village like the one he was given and an education that, unlike other schools in Ghana, was also available to girls. And he wanted to provide that education tuition free. In 2004, Heritage Academy opened with 32 students in a church. Melissa then founded the Schoerke Foundation which raises funds for scholarships and upkeep of the school. Heritage has since expanded to include a high school and is now housed in a refurbished abandoned factory. Enrollment is up to nearly 1400 – with a 100% pass rate on the national exams. For some children, their only full meals are provided by school. I’m excited for our students to observe real-world changemakers and appreciate, in an authentic way, the commitment, toil, and joy of realizing dreams and bringing about true change.
This will be my third excursion with students. Before my first trip, I thought it might be a form of torture to travel with a herd of teenagers. I thought there would be incessant eye rolling, complaining about food and humble accommodations, and that unfamiliar environments would kick teen angst and drama into overdrive. Instead, they have been curious, open minded, and hungry for knowledge. Of course there were challenges – the culture shock of living in a dirt-floor home with a host family (and their chickens and Guinea pigs) in Peru, the blistered, bloody feet and shredded knees from hiking 72 miles of the Camino de Santiago in the rain and hail, the frustration of language barriers, and the eventual hunger for familiar routines – but they faced challenges with grit, even if sometimes they were overcome in the moment. It was remarkably gratifying to watch them rise up to meet the challenges, to witness their growth, and to see them put the skills they learned at Westtown into practice. I marveled at their evolution into true world citizens. I expect no less from this group of students.
What I like most about these trips is that they demand introspection. You cannot observe and experience another culture without also experiencing and understanding your own (and yourself) in a new light. And they build empathy – a characteristic I consider an essential aspect of human interaction. Traveling is like getting a new set of eyeballs and a brand spanking new heart. You see the world more clearly, understand it more deeply, hear the voices of those you’ve never considered before, and gain newfound respect for the cultures woven into the vibrant tapestry that is humanity.
Travel is a most precious gift for me, but a critically important one for young people – the ones who can use what they learn to change the world. What gifts will Ghana give us? Stay tuned!