By Brendan O’Brien
When I found out I’d been accepted to study abroad everyone was asking, “Why Ghana?” I always felt like my answer couldn’t really explain my motivation. I still feel unable to fully articulate all my reasons, but I’ll try.
I studied abroad to shatter my world view because I acknowledged on some level just how limited my understanding of the world was without seeing different parts of it. I went to Ghana for practical reasons (English is the official language; it’s one of the more stable countries in Africa, and the program and desired courses that I was looking for were offered) as well as more ambiguous reasons (I wanted to be forced beyond my comfort zone, to immerse myself in a culture very different from the one in which I’d grown up, and to have a better understanding of the world). If I learned one thing while being there, it’s that everything is connected.
I can’t even pretend to “understand Africa” or understand the world, because everything is endlessly interconnected. Grouping all African nations and peoples together, attempting to understand any one based on another, is no more useful than doing the same within North America or the United States or the Midwest or Davenport or my street. I cannot understand anything or anyone without putting it in the context of its roots. The only way to know a person is to take an active interest in his or her life.
I love puzzles and enjoy understanding problems and developing solutions, so it’s tempting to say I’ve come to understand Ghanaian culture or I understand how the African continent has developed as it has, but I can’t do that.
I went to Ghana with the belief that there was wisdom to be found there which is hard to come by in the U.S. I went with an idealistic rejection of the notion that college is simply preparation for my life; this is my life.
It’s this inability to “settle” or pass up an opportunity that got me into some interesting situations while traveling. I told my sister of my plan to meet up with a friend in northern Ghana, rent bicycles, ride 200 kilometers into Burkina Faso, and hop on a train before making it back to Accra in time for four exams. We didn’t end up taking a train or renting bicycles, but we did rent a moto (motorcycle) for approximately $15 for a full day.
I cannot fully explain why I do these things, which may be part of the reason why I continue to do them. Maybe it’s because the pig that caused the moto crash strolled away unharmed; villagers hammered the pedal back into place and checked our wounds; one of the only English speakers we met in Burkina happened to be riding with us, and we chanced upon a health clinic a stone’s throw up the road. Maybe it’s because a good attitude and a lot of patience somehow can see you through almost any situation.
I had classes canceled due to a football match, rain, threat of rain, power outage, lack of material, professor being in a motorcycle accident, unknown reasons, lack of students on campus, lack of professors on campus, and a faculty strike.
I grew with every minute of my time in Ghana. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to go to a country in transition. I had malaria, interacted with people on a fairly regular basis who struggle to make enough money to eat, and was squeezed on “tro-tros” (a public transportation vehicle other than a bus or taxi) with twice the recommended number of people. I had my shoes stolen, was in a moto accident and pushed to my wits’ end, which usually is expressed in endless laughter.
I lived in a dorm with electricity and running water (most of the time anyway) on the campus of a university in the 4-million-strong city of Accra. There were times I traveled on the smooth road leading from Accra to Aflao (bordering Togo) and mused how much the surrounding landscape appeared like home. There were times, however, when it hit me just how far I was from the U.S. My head is stuffed with the experiences and memories and friendships and thoughts from the last four-and-a-half months, trying to make sense of my time in Ghana in the context of my life.
(Brendan O’Brien, 21, is a graduate of All Saints Catholic School and Assumption High School in Davenport, and is a senior at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. He is a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport).