A large, stone castle sits on the Ghanaian coast. The waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash against the structure’s faded white facade. A group of students stand on the barracks gazing at the sea.
From the outside, the architecture looks beautiful. But as the students step inside, the intense rank of the building reveals its dark history of the slave trade and the hundreds of thousands who faced their deaths as they journeyed to the Americas.
Ten Webster students traveled with Professor Danielle MacCartney to Ghana for an organized, two-month long research program during Summer 2017. This program was the first of its kind for MacCartney and the first official summer study abroad program at the Webster Ghana campus.
The students were able to experience Ghanaian culture and history as they conducted their research and participated in excursions provided through the program.
One of these excursions was a trip to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site Elmina Castle. The castle was one of the most significant stops on the Atlantic Slave Trade. Students like Alexis Pettay and Jenna Rodriguez found this experience to be impactful.
Pettay studies English and Spanish. She said during the visit to Elmina, the local tour guide told the group about the history of the castle, the slave trade and all of the lives lost on the journey to the Americas.
“A whole population was lost underneath those waves, lost because of the atrocious acts of several people allowing for human bondage and suffering to endure,” Pettay said. “This was something you could never dream was possible, yet it was right before our eyes.”
Rodriguez, who is studying Special Education, said her experience at Elmina Castle opened her eyes to the history of the slave trade. This history came to life for Rodriguez during an interpretative dance performance. Dancers enacted a scene of slaves being lined up and led into the castle.
Rodriguez felt the slave trade is not extensively covered in American schools, despite its significance. She said because of this experience, she felt American schools should put a greater emphasis on the slave trade in history courses.
Pettay agreed. She said this was important for students to experience to get a clear picture into Africa’s situation and to better understand Ghana.
Olivia Potter, a law-school bound International Relations major, has traveled to 25 countries and three continents within a little over a year. In all of her travels, she said the poverty in Ghana affected her the most. She said she experienced this while visiting a refugee camp in Ghana and coming face to face with the poverty in the camp and on the Ghanaian streets.
Potter described a stark contrast between the poverty in Ghana and the amenities on campus. She said people were on the streets without a place to sleep or proper clothing, while she and others on campus knew they had a place to come home to with Wi-Fi, air conditioning and showers.
“It made me angry at wealth,” Potter said. “It made me angry at the system. I felt so undeserving of all the great things we got to do.”
Dr. Christa Sanders, Director of the Ghana Campus, has been in Ghana for over 20 years and spoke highly of the Ghanaian culture.
“Ghana is known to be the friendliest, most welcoming nation in West Africa,” Sanders said. “It’s seen as the gateway to West Africa. And so, I feel as if people really feel that welcoming nature of the Ghanaian people.”
Pettay said Ghanaians live a slower paced life. She said it was not a problem to show up late and was even normal to do so. This taught her how to live in the moment and take things as they come.
“I saw with my own eyes that life is truly a winding path, nothing is straightforward or simple,” Pettay said. “I had to learn to embrace change
and appreciate challenges. This enabled me to make deep, meaningful connections with people I met over in Ghana.”
Pettay experienced many other parts of Ghana as well. She visited rainforests and waterfalls, crossed bridges hanging high above treetops and tried various local foods such as jollof rice. She said she was able to be truly independent and enjoyed being able to go to the beach at any time and buy fresh fruit and street food straight off the street.
Potter said her time in Ghana changed her perspective of Africa and the developing world. She said Americans tend to see Africa as an uncivilized place. Potter said this is inaccurate and emphasized the importance of truly experiencing Africa for what it is rather than common misconceptions.
Sanders said many are hesitant to visit Africa because of their perception of it.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about Africa and Ghana,” Sanders said. “What is it all about? Is it a situation where someone will get ill? How do people live there? There are a lot of stereotypes about the African continent.”
Pettay encouraged students to go to Ghana and see the culture and the people. She said once people go to Ghana, they could find a “home away from home” and see their previous judgements as misperceptions.
“It was so hard to leave after two months,” Pettay said. “But once you go to Ghana, the place permanently stitches itself into your heart and you’ll learn more about who you are. But also, your perspective will be broader and you’ll see how much bigger the world is beyond your own back door.”