Today is my last day in Ghana. As we shuttled the last group of students out of the Accra airport last night I tried to think about what I would write here. I wanted to write something smart and profound. Ideally I would be able to sum up just under two months of experiences in a brief and entertaining way. It is now very clear that is impossible.
I ended up learning significantly more about Ghana than I expected. I am especially thankful for our local Ghanian staff who essentially made sure I would survive in a country I knew virtually nothing about before arriving. They also answered my never-ending stream of questions about local customs, history and culture. The answers to the questions only brought on more. I will be leaving Ghana with an incredibly complex knot of thoughts about the role of volunteer work in developing countries, leadership, my own photography and a host of other things. Perhaps the most valuable thing to understand is that I know nothing. And as I sit on the cusp of starting my masters degree, it’s nice to keep that in mind. There is still so much more to learn and debate about in my own head. There are many more people to meet and places to visit before I start to know at least something.
I will also be leaving Ghana with a ridiculous amount of photos. Some of them I am happy with, others I am not. The photojournalist inside me is disappointed I never had time (nor was it in my job description) to tell stories of Ghana itself. There are many stories here that don’t fit classical Western understanding of West Africa and I would have loved to tell them. Looking at my strongest single images I can’t help but think of the story behind the image that I failed to capture.
There is the story of these two boys who face incredibly complex incentives for going (or not going) to school. Just about everyone in Ghana recognizes the importance of education, especially as a means out of poverty. But they are also faced with their current state of poverty. For many families their children are a potential source of needed income, and having them in school means the children don’t make money. The result of this paradox is these boys go some days to school and not others, choosing instead to make a few bucks selling goods on the street. I wish I could tell them what the right path is, but I don’t know.
There is also a story behind this waterfall and every nature-y photo I took on the trip. The natural beauty of Ghana is obvious—the magnitude of garbage occupying every nook and cranny of the country is even more so. Environmental tourism is only viable when the environment is still around. And without waste management it’s sad to see the pollution, let alone live in it.
There is the story about the role of foreign business and involvement.
What’s the reason behind the meat cleaver photo? It has to do with business, trust me. Our groups interacted with countless local businesses. Some were better than others. Many were comically frustrating. I frequently thought while waiting 3 or more hours for food to be prepared that, if I were to open a restaurant in Ghana, I would be incredibly successful. Not because I am a good businessman or cook, but because I would offer the most basic form of customer service, and thus would blow the competition out of the water. The good and bad thing is that is already happening. Foreign companies and investors see the opportunity to make money in Ghana and they start companies. Oftentimes a big majority of the profits end up leaving the country and not benefiting the local population. So what’s the solution here? Again, I wish I knew. Ghana needs competent businesses and infrastructure. They also need money to stay within their borders. With the history of the West meddling in Ghana’s affairs, many officials don’t trust their own population to handle the problems at hand. To quote my good friend and Ghanian, Emma, “Ghanians don’t believe in themselves.” When disbelief is coupled with government corruption, the majority of people suffer for the benefit of the few and progress is stunted.
There are many other stories I could bring up. They are all similar to the ones above—complex and murky.
The one story I know that is clear to me is the one I will tell everyone once I am home. I assume I will have to answer the questions of, “How was Ghana?” a thousand times.
Here is what I will say: It was a sincere joy to experience the happiness and friendliness of the people here. In many ways they reminded me of home. They are constantly greeting, smiling and laughing. They are loud (sometimes too loud). They are proud of their place in history and role within Africa. Their concept of time and its management is refreshing and also unbelievably frustrating at times. Ghanians are curious, thoughtful and respectful. I had deep and memorable conversations with several people that made me feel dumb and clueless. It was great.
Thanks for following my journey through Ghana. Next stop is Germany and Norway.