Impressions of Accra – the First Few Hours

Note: This posting was written on 9/12/11, but due to lack of internet, it hasn’t been posted until today.

Even though our group has been staying in Accra at the Coconut Point Regency Hotel, we haven’t really experienced the city due to constant orientations and lectures. However, yesterday we took a trip to the center of Accra and walked around for a few hours. Here are the first impressions:

•The Traffic: To sum it up, Accra is as busy as New York, but much crazier and hectic. First of all, cars (not pedestrians) have the right of way. If you’re walking across the crosswalk and the stoplight turns green for the cars, you better start running. Cars will slam on the accelerator, and start honking at you immediately. A personal estimate is that at least 50{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} of all vehicles on the road are either trotros (see below) or taxis. People drive like complete jerks – cutting people off, not letting people merge, and even driving on the sidewalk just to pass someone. It’s probably a good thing that AFS doesn’t let us drive over here…

• The Trotros: Generally speaking, a trotro is any form of public transportation besides a bus/taxi that is designed to carry many people. In Ghana, they are either a large van or very small bus, and are the primary form of transportation for Ghanaians (most cannot afford a car). There are also a variety of hand signals used to show the conductor where you are going, and conductors also yell out of the side of the vehicle their destination. I will be taking 2-3 separate trotros to get to Achimota once my school begins this Tuesday.

• Using Their Heads: Ghanaians carry everything on top of their heads. In just a few hours, I saw cartons of eggs, chocolate bars, mini-fridges and even clay pots balanced on their heads. Although people carrying everything on their head looks very silly at first, it makes perfect sense because it helps avoid back strain and is much easier for carrying heavy items long distances. Sometimes people wrap cloth in a circle to help stabilize their goods, while other times it’s flat on their head. Regardless, I have yet to see a Ghanaian drop anything.

• The Market: It’s almost indescribable; absolutely chaotic, yet perfectly in order. To be honest, it’s still overwhelming for me – the constant shouts of “Obruni” and “buy this” while watching where I am stepping in the unpaved path are so different from home. Everything from Nigerian movie DVD’s and bananas to t-shirts and fufu pounding sticks are sold. Every couple of seconds the smell changes completely between anything from garlic and old fish to human excrement, so be careful about how deeply you inhale.

• Poverty: To be honest, while poverty does exist in Ghana, it’s not as overwhelming as you think. I have yet to see something that I couldn’t imagine taking place anywhere in the United States. One thing that was new for me (coming from Naples, Florida) was the following people asking for money.

o The Kids: While they are very cute when asking for money, they usually aren’t Ghanaian. Most kids we’ve seen have been Mali, and beg for money which they then proceed to give to their parent. Their parent may then proceed to buy food for the kid, but it’s just as likely that they will use it to buy alcohol or drugs for themselves.

o The Handicapped: As you are driving, handicapped people will either wheel themselves to you, or do something else to get your attention. This type of begging does take some getting used to. According to our orientation, if a child is born handicapped, there is a large chance they will be abandoned on the streets because many African parents believe handicaps to be a form of witchcraft.

Safely in Ghana

Hello everyone! As of now, I have officially spent about 36 hours in Accra.

This post is just to inform everyone that I am safe. I don't have very much time for an in-depth post, but Ghana is absolutely amazing. Hopefully there will be many postings and photos to come.

If you have any questions or comments, comment away. Don't forget to subscribe!

Ghana FAQ’s

I've been getting a lot of questions about YES Abroad and Ghana lately. To help clear the air and alleviate any misconceptions about my year abroad, I compiled this list of FAQ's and their answers.

1. Where is Ghana?

Ghana is the green country on the map.

Within Ghana, I'll be hosted in either:

  • Accra – The capitol of Ghana with roughly 4 million people
  • Kumasi – The second largest city with roughly 1.5 million people. It is commonly known as "The Garden City," due to its large variety of plants and animals.
2. When do you leave for Ghana?
I haven't received my official departure date yet, but according to the AFS website, I will leave between September 4-7 and return between June 21-24, 2012.

 

3. Why Ghana?
Ghana is one of ten countries with "significant Muslim populations" authorized for the YES Abroad scholarship by the U.S. State Department. YES Abroad asks you to be flexible in your country choices, as you may not get your #1 choice. Ghana, Morocco, and Mali are the three west-African countries in the YES Consortium.

 

4. What will you be doing there?
To be honest, I'm not 100{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} sure. I will be attending a Ghanaian high school, living with a host family, and learning about Muslim culture. Other than that, it's a bit up in the air. The thing to remember is I'm not going to Ghana as a tourist; I'll be there in order to live like a Ghanaian and represent the United States.

 

5. Isn't Ghana dangerous / Don't you want to live?!?
This is actually the question I get most often. It's fairly surprising how dangerous Americans generalize Africa to be, despite contradicting crime statistics.
According to INTERPOL data in the year 2000 (rates are per 100,000 population):
  • For murder, the rate was 2.48 for Ghana and 5.51 for USA.
  • For rape, the rate was 6.85 for Ghana and 32.05 for USA.
  • For robbery, the rate was 2.15 for Ghana and 144.92 for USA.
  • For burglary, the rate was 1.3 for Ghana and 728.42 for USA.
  • The rate for all index offenses combined was 461.28 for Ghana compared to 4123.97 for USA
I'm not trying to say that the USA is unsafe and Ghana is a utopia, but the fact of the matter is that as long as I don't do anything stupid while I'm in Ghana, crime shouldn't be of concern.

 

Thanks for reading! If you have any other questions, feel free to ask and I will respond to the best of my ability.

 

YES Abroad Pre-Departure Orientation

Last week attended the YES Abroad Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington D.C. The 50 YES Abroad students met up with roughly 500 YES exchange students (who spent a year living in the US), for a jam-packed week of excitement, seminars, and lobbying. Now that I once again have my sleep pattern restored to a semi-regular schedule, here's a list of several things I learned throughout the week:

Top 5 Tips/Lessons Learned from the YES Abroad Pre-Departure Orientation:

5. Not only is drinking alcohol forbidden in the Qur'an, but using it as an ingredient in food is also prohibited. This goes against an ancient culinary myth I was brought up believing – that alcoholic content disappears when food has been cooked. This is not true – anywhere from 4 to 85{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} of the original alcoholic content remains in the food.

4. Creative alternative ways which I plan on using to document my year abroad include:

  • Placing sticky notes daily on a calendar to quickly and efficiently document each day
  • Collecting artifacts (legally)
  • Having a posterboard collage full of postcards on both sides that can be hung in the middle of a room
  • Choreographing  an interpretive dance daily to express my feelings

Special thanks to Aly G. for  these fantastic ideas.

3. Never sing in the shower while in Ghana. This is a popular superstition, and if broken, your mother will supposedly die. This most likely originated in order to keep kids from accidentally swallowing the soap lather.

2. Everyone involved in YES, YES Abroad, and AFS are all amazing people. It's shocking to think we've only known each other for under a week – we meld together and get along so well. I can only imagine how close we'll be during our returning orientation.

1. Never say that you will write in lists of five just because it's a nice sounding number – especially if you can't think of five things to write about.

 

YES Abroad: Ghana Finalist

3 weeks ago, I posted information about the YES Abroad process and announced that I was an alternate to spend a year abroad.

Today I am proud to announce that I have been upgraded to be a finalist and have accepted a YES Abroad scholarship to Ghana.

At first I was very disappointed that I was awarded Ghana due to the fact that I had my heart set on learning a language which would help me later on in life. I debated between college and Ghana, talked to Adam Streeter (Ghana YES alumni), and ultimately decided to take a gap year for the following reasons:

Africa It intrigues me. Particularly the sense of community found throughout the continent. I currently live in Naples Florida, and know little about community. In fact, at my dad's house I have neither never seen nor talked to my neighbors, despite living in the house for over 3 years. One alumni from Mozambique said that if he saw his neighbor and merely said "Hello," he would be considered rude. In his culture, when seeing an acquaintance it is expected to ask how their family is doing, how their day is, etc. This isn't the best of examples, but stands nonetheless.

College – Although I got into every college I cared about, I applied for financial aid far too late. I want a second chance for financial aid and to apply for more schools that give merit based aid. I leave for Ghana in September, so I'll be busy this August with applications.

Relaxation – Spending 10 months in Ghana gives me time to relax. As Adam told me over the phone, high school is all about "achieving, achieving, and achieving." Meanwhile, Ghana will teach me what really matters – life experiences. This is entirely true. Education's success is measured in standardized tests. Whether it's the FCAT, SAT, or AP Exams; the goal of education is to make you pass them. If the school has a 100{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} pass ratio, the teachers have "done their job." This says nothing about success in the real world. It could be that the child who fails FCAT Reading turns out to be a famous mathematician or one who gets perfect scores doesn't go to college – it means nothing. In Ghana, I hope to get a real education.

Writing – English is widely spoken in Ghana, so learning Twi (Ghana's main tribal language) will not be my primary goal. My current goal is to either write the first draft of a novel or post in my blog consistently enough that one day it could be turned into a book. Ghana will be a my gap year in-between high school and college, and I fully intend to take advantage of my time off.

All I currently know about my specific Ghanaian program follows:

Location – Students shall be hosted in either Accra (the capitol) or Kumasi.

Host Family – Students will live with host families in order to experience a true immersion into Ghanaian culture. Families are selected based on recommendations from members of the local community, and each is carefully screened by staff and volunteers. Many families hold a position of influence within their community, and all are highly regarded by their relatives and neighbors. Hosting communities exist through the presence of a strong volunteer support network, with a local volunteer, or “liaison,” available to each student hosted in the community.

Cultural Activities – Numerous cultural excursions will be offered to students to give them the opportunity to see the varying geographical and cultural regions of the country. Excursions to northern regions will include trips to Tamale, Dalun, Kumasi and Kintampo. Students will also be offered the chance to explore the southern regions of Ghana outside of Accra with trips to Kakum National Park and the Cape Coast and Emina castles.

School Life – Students hosted in Ghana will attend public secondary schools that can be either single sex or co-educational. The language of instruction is English. In addition to regular schooling, students will be offered introductory language courses in one regional Ghanaian language upon arrival, and will continue classes with a language instructor for two hours per week for the remainder of the program. To supplement the core educational curriculum, students will be offered a variety of extracurricular activities, including lessons in drumming, traditional dance, batik tie-dye and Kente weaving.

Orientation will be June 28 through July 1st. I will be leaving for Ghana this September and will return in June of 2012.

 

YES Abroad Application Process and Semi-Finalism

Basic Facts About YES

YES Abroad is a congressional initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It provides full scholarships for 50 American high school students to study abroad in countries with significant Muslim populations for a full academic year.

YES exists to let Americans learn more about Muslim communities as they learn more about Americans. The program's mission is to "build bridges of international understanding between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations."

Requirements:

  • Students must be U.S. Citizens
  • High school students when applying
  • Age 15-18.5

Available Countries

  • Egypt**
  • Ghana*
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Mali (semester)
  • Malaysia*
  • Morocco
  • Oman
  • Thailand
  • Turkey*

* – Designates countries available as gap years.
** – Due to the 2011 revolution, Egypt was not available for this year.

The Application Process:

Official Website: http://www.yesprograms.org/yesabroad

I discovered this scholarship just a few days before it was due. Although it was last-minute scramble, it was worth it in the end. The application seemed quite long at first, but is very manageable if you keep your eyes on the prize.

According the the representatives at the semi-finalist event, over 600 people started but did not complete the application due to  its length.

The application for 2012-13 will be available in the fall of 2011. Sample short answer questions asked in the 2011-12 application include:

  • Describe a challenge you experienced in the past two years when you had to be flexible and adjust your expectations. How did you react? Why?
  • Why is living in a country with a significant Muslim population important to you?
  • How will you use your role as an alumnus of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad program to support intercultural learning and cross cultural understanding in your home community upon your return?

Just when I had almost forgotten about my application, I received word that I was one of 75 semi-finalists to be flown to Denver for 3 days of group interviews during mid-March.

TIP: As soon as you discover your semi-finalist status, join Culture Shocked. Through this forum, I had met and chatted with at least 10 other semi-finalists before I arrived in Denver.

Semi-Finalism

In a nutshell, Denver was amazing. The 74 of us (1 person didn't show) quickly bonded, and we have been talking nonstop since then. Although there was a lot at stake, the atmosphere was relaxed enough for everyone to have a great time.

Workshops:

The workshops are not evaluated, and seemed to be intended to give us a sense of who we are as Americans and all that we represent. The information gained from the 3 workshops and speeches are sure to be useful when traveling abroad any time in the future. Role playing exercises given out that I would highly reccomend acting out include the following:

  • Your host family is very generous and each time after you're done eating your meals they keep insisting that you should have even more food even though you're very full. How do you explain to them that the fact is you're full and the food is great – without hurting their feelings?
  • You are watching the news with your host family, and you watch a feature on TV that deals with a topic you feel strongly about. Your host family, however, feels the complete opposite way. Do you express your very different opinion to your host family? How do you do this, and what exactly can you say? Can you agree to disagree?

The Alumni Factor

About 25 alumni of YES were with us in Denver. Semi-finalists were on a rotating schedule for individual interviews, so those not being interviewed got the opportunity to have an open table discussion with alumni from each country. This is a unique aspect to this program; make sure you ask questions while you're there to get the first-person perspective.

The Talent Show

As soon as people heard there was going to be a talent show in Denver, people got nervous. Just relax- take a few deep breaths, and finish this paragraph. The talent show is really nothing to worry about. First of all, it's not part of the evaluation. Secondly, talent shows are just about showing off what you're good at. While this is theoretically the definition of "talent", people sometimes don't realize that this can mean anything from reading poetry to making origami. It's all about having fun, and (sometimes) making a fool of yourself.

Evaluation Process

There were 3 group evaluations in Denver. Each one involved accomplishing a somewhat difficult task by working together with your groups through various obstacles.

There was also a rotating schedule for individual interviews. Alumni conduct these, and each one lasts about 30 minutes. If you search on Google, you can find some potential interview questions from AFS. These probably won't be the exact questions asked, but they will give you a good idea of what to expect.

In Conclusion…

YES Abroad for Americans is an amazing scholarship which has the power to change your life. Even if you don't end up receiving the final scholarship, you will meet friends to keep for years to come. I heavily encourage anyone interested to apply for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I made it out of Denver as an alternate, and am proud to say so. The other contestants and finalists are amazing people who all deserve to study abroad, and I am looking forwards to following their lives during the upcoming year.

If you have any questions/comments, feel free to ask away.

Finalist Blogs:

Adriana in Ghana
Kyla in Ghana

Ana in India
Hannah in India
Harriet in India
Jenny in India

Andrew in Indonesia

Andrea in Mali
Hope in Mali

Peggy in Malaysia

Bailey in Oman
Emma in Oman
Jaira in Oman

Liz in Thailand
Tyler in Thailand