Fishing Boats in Cape Coast

Fishing Boats in Cape Coast. Photo by Joy Agner '06

Service Learning on the Gold Coast

The Tudu market in Accra stretches out wide, deep and long—a vast jungle of its own. Buses whiz by with "mates" hanging out the window yelling, "Cra! Cra! Cra! Cra!" Everyone who goes to Ghana will recognize this sound, an invitation to squeeze into this overflowing, derelict bus and bump into the city, perhaps with chickens at your feet or a neighbor sleeping on your shoulder by the time you get there.

It is hard to convince first-time Africa-goers this bird-like call is a summons to the most dangerous situation they likely will encounter on the trip. When people think of Africa, the so-called "dark continent," they think of something much more bone-chilling: child soldiers, famine, guns and disease. Admittedly, Africa has suffered much tragedy, but focusing on those elements alone denies the complexity of each country and the beauty of each village.

The Pacific University students who participate in the Peace and Conflict Studies Course "Ghana Service Learning" get to see much more than hardship. The highlight for most is spending two weeks in Amedzofe (pronounced Ah-me-joh-pey), a village in the Volta Region, which sits on the highest mountains in Ghana. It is surrounded by cloud forest and filled with a warm and welcoming populace. The people of Amedzofe have come to know Pacific, since we have taken groups there three times in the past five years. To every stranger they call out "You are welcome!" as you head down the dusty streets. And indeed, we feel welcome.

Soon after we arrive we are formally "inducted," a custom for every Ghanaian village. Slightly nervous we enter, remove our shoes and hand over the customary bottle of Schnapps. One by one, we state our mission and our anticipated service projects to the village chiefs and queen mothers. The elders talk it over and consult the ancestors. Palm wine is poured for the ancestors, and finally, we are accepted as "brothers and sisters of Amedzofe!"

From that point on we are very busy, not only with our service projects, but getting to know this foreign land and people. Ghana rewards casual exploration, and what a student might find out through an introduction to someone's home teaches much more than any class or book. The beauty of the village, and of Ghana in general, is that it is very welcoming, accessible and safe. An afternoon jaunt to the local seamstress, or drum lesson, might turn into a great friendship and an insight to an incredibly different life. From these interactions we learn that Ghanaians are not poor or powerless as many Westerners assume. They have very little in the way of material goods but their lives are rich. Their lineages are long and meaningful. And their enthusiasm for life is as undeniable as the power of their songs.

Pacific students and staff pose with Ghanaians affected by mining.

Pacific students and staff pose with Ghanaians affected by mining.

But it isn't all easy. Within this course we learn about problems, too. First, we visit Adabraka, one of the largest informal settlements, or slums, in Accra, led by Slum Dwellers, a non-governmental group which employs grassroots organizing to help the residents pool social and economic resources to construct a more humane environment. We learn that most slum dwellers are migrant Ghanaians from rural communities who came to pursue big city dreams of education, modernization and a steady job.

We also learn the painful history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by visiting the slave castles in Cape Coast and Elmina. We study colonialism and how the African revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to be the first peaceful and independent sub-Saharan nation.

Finally, we learn about the current plight of Africans through the exploitation of their natural resources, in Ghana's case, gold. Prior to the trip, we studied gold extraction techniques and read the corporate social responsibility report (CSR) published by Golden Star Resources, the U.S.-Canadian company that mines in the communities we visit: Prestea and Dumase.

Visiting these gold communities reveals something distinctly different from the happy faces and social development projects in the CSR report. There's Dei Nkrumah, who told of failed crops and diseased animals, which he says is the direct result of cyanide used in gold leaching. We met Georgina Donkor, who has had continuous hemorrhaging since she was exposed to water contaminated by cyanide. And Ama Semire whose young daughter died when she fell into an open surface mine in the middle of their community. We tour homes cracked by the dynamite blasts used to shape the surface mines and stand in what appears to be one of the poorest and most contaminated areas in Ghana, recognizing that multi-millions of dollars are flowing directly outward, into the coffers of the mining companies.

This is usually the hardest part. It is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. But understanding the ramifications of consumerism and global capitalism is important, so that we can begin to take part in ameliorating those problems. Fortunately the communities are not powerless or defeated. We met with two social advocacy groups: Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM) and the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), a legal advocacy group working to stop human rights and environmental abuses associated with mining.

Young Ghanian boy smiles. Vane, Ghana. Photo by Joy Agner '06.

Young Ghanian boy smiles. Vane, Ghana. Photo by Joy Agner '06.

Their smiles and enthusiasm are not lacking. They are still Ghanaian. They still demonstrate the intense resilience, hope and joy typical of Africans. With their help, Prestea and Dumase are setting legal precedents, and working to make corporations accountable for their damages. Pacific students continue to learn how to support those changes. Many have returned to develop more in depth studies, web pages, reports or presentations related to this issue.

Each participant in the Ghana Service Learning course is undoubtedly altered by the experience. For every person, the trip is a powerful one, the immersion complete, the education radical. At the end, each member of the group is connected to one another, if only by the fact that they shared such a rich and indescribable experience.

And, they all remember that unforgettable sound, "Cra! Cra! Cra! Cra!"

-- Joy Agner '06

Joy Agner is a Fulbright Scholar who used her award to study in Guatemala. At Pacific, she majored in psychology, with a minor in Spanish. She recommends the following for more on Africa: "Somebody's Heart is Burning" by Tanya Schaffer and "The Shadow of the Sun" by Ryszard Kapuscinski. There is also a movie in the Pacific University Library about the Ghanaian communities affected by mining titled "When Silence is Golden." (

Palm nuts

Palm nuts. Photo by Joy Agner '06

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Prestea, a Mining Community

Prestea, a Mining Community. Photo by Joy Agner '06

Joy Agner '06 making fufu in Ghana.

Joy Agner '06 making fufu in Ghana.