Dispatches from Ghana: From stereotypes to reality

Recently, a dozen Penn State undergraduate and graduate students returned from study abroad at the University of Ghana in West Africa, where they were accompanied and instructed by Francis Dodoo, a Penn State research professor with the Population Research Institute and professor of sociology and demography. Three of the students blogged about their experiences while in Ghana. This is the first of three entries.

Ghana: From sterotypes to reality
By Mike Rettig

Hunger. War. Wild Animals. Topless National Geographic-type women. Brilliant amber sunsets. These are the things that came to mind when I used to envision Africa. Like many people, I think I used to romanticize the continent a bit — pairing all of its well-known unfortunate realities with more pleasing twists of happiness and cultural vibrancy.

Now, after having spent a semester at the University of Ghana, I could rave about the fresh fruit and beautiful beaches, or complain about having to carry around my own toilet paper. In fact, though, I've seen many of the things I used to imagine, and I never could have guessed how differently they appear in real life. More than anything else, my time studying in Africa has highlighted the differences between knowing something and really *understanding* that same thing.

It's easy to look at pictures of the stereotypical Africa, but it's completely different to walk amongst it — to feel the sun burning the back of your neck, smell the burning trash, and step over the open sewer. With some of these things, you adapt so quickly that the original shock quickly fades into something not even worth mentioning. Other things, however, remain startling each time. The strange and unexpected way in which each experience ends up falling into one of those categories, however, is what has fascinated me so much about my experience in Ghana.

I suppose somewhere inside of me I thought living in a poor country would be a bit like traveling back in time — it's not. Soon after stepping over an open sewer you'll probably step into the range of a wireless network. And that woman wearing a beautiful African dress and carrying 50 pounds of yams atop her head? She'll probably change into shorts and take a taxi home later. I can't even express how strange it was when, in the midst of riding a camel through the Sahara Desert to a Tuareg camp, my guide's cell phone rang with end-of-Ramadan greetings from his family!

But even these things quickly lose their novelty, because it becomes clear that you're not looking at photos or watching a television special, you're *living* here. It's quite normal. People enjoy listening to reggae and hip-hop, they like drinking and going out, they like American movies and TV shows (though pirated of course), and they *love* soccer. Yes, in many ways, Africa is the same as State College, because they're both simply places filled with people trying to live and have a good time.

In the last few months, through Ghana, Togo, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, and even post-civil war Cote d'Ivoire, I've had every expectation shattered in every way, and I've realized that just about everywhere is ridiculously livable, even if it requires a bit of adapting.

Studying abroad at the University of Ghana was a great way to ease into a place that people have a lot of misconceptions about, it's educational, and it's just fun. Some students threw themselves into campus life, getting involved with student groups, concerts and spending the weekends at Ghanaian friends' homes. Others used the University as a great base from which to explore the rest of West Africa.

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Dodoo is returning to Ghana with a new group of students in fall 2009; the application deadline is March 1. Those interested in more information about the study-abroad program, which focuses on social science and research and is based at the University of Ghana, should e-mail Rachel Helwig, education abroad adviser, at reh25@psu.edu, or visit the Penn State Education Abroad Web site.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010