First Person: Akwaaba for boola boola; Yale and Ghana form mutual inspiration society

Alumnus Michael Morand, the deputy chief communications officer of Yale, writes about the experiences of the 2012 and 2013 Yale Alumni Service Corps in Yamoransa, Ghana.

“Ghana: Most Hospitable Nation on Earth” read the title of a DVD I saw last summer in the welcome center at the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra. After two visits to the country in the past two years, and daily social media connections with Ghanaian friends, I know the hospitality is real.

I was in Accra in July 2012 for a few days before beginning work with the Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) in Yamoransa, a village of around 15,000 residents 75 miles west of the capital in Ghana’s Central Region. My guide that first day in the country was Accra-born Efe Chantal Ghanney ’13, a former freshman advisee of mine and then a rising senior in Saybrook College, who was back home as an intern at the Ministry of Health. Ghanney embodies akwaaba – “welcome” – a hallmark of her country. One of a growing number of Ghanaian students at Yale in recent years, she also exemplifies Ghana’s promise, present and future.

Like most developing countries, Ghana is young, with 46% of the population under 18 years old (compared to 23% of the U.S. population). Ghana’s sustained economic growth, political stability, peaceful transitions of power, and six consecutive democratic elections are sources of local pride and models for other nations. The country’s youthfulness, akwaaba, and development prospects were evident again this summer, when 159 fellow Yale alumni, family, and friends joined a second YASC program in Yamoransa Aug. 1-11,.

Founded in 2008, YASC is part of the pioneering work by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) to foster alumni community service. In recent years, the AYA has aimed not only to serve alumni and connect them to each other and to Yale, but also to support service by graduates in their home communities and around the world. In the last six years, there have been 11 YASC programs in the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Mexico, China, Nicaragua, and Brazil, as well as YASC’s first domestic project in June in West Virginia.

The corps in Ghana have been the largest. This summer’s team in Yamoransa included Corps members hailed from across the United States and from South Africa, Spain, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Japan. Most had never been to Ghana, a quarter had participated in the 2012 program, and a few had lived in or visited Ghana previously.

YASC groups work closely with local partners. In Yamoransa, YASC has had the leadership and expertise of AFS Ghana and the University of Cape Coast (UCC). These partners brought the invaluable participation of 40 young Ghanaian volunteers. These future leaders included college students from around the country on summer break, local college students who helped as translators, and recent college graduates working as part of the one-year national service that tens of thousands of Ghanaians do after college.

There’s no guarantee a group of 200 Yale and Ghanaian volunteers, most strangers to each other, will come together successfully with a community like Yamoransa, a setting unfamiliar to many. Nor are the odds necessarily great that their intensive 10 days of collaboration will have much tangible or lasting impact.

My experience as a YASC participant in Ghana, the reflections of fellow corps members, and reports of Ghanaian colleagues all testify that the exchange of Yale “boola boola” spirit with Yamoransa and Ghana’s akwaaba did have positive impact, in that lives were changed – including those of us from Yale.

The Yale Alumni Service Corps included 75 graduates of Yale, plus family and friends, ranging in age from 10 to 80 years old.

From an objective perspective, the tangible impact for Yamoransa was real, if limited. Like countless communities throughout every continent, Yamoransa is a place of extremely constrained resources and substantial economic and social challenges. It represents one end of Ghana’s development spectrum, in contrast to the growth and infrastructure development in Accra and other cities.

Yamoransa’s houses are densely built and very close to each other along dirt paths up and down a hilly landscape, with only two paved and illuminated roads. There are no formal drains and only a very few toilets amongst thousands of residences and shops, churches, and other venues. The small Western Union office is the only air-conditioned room in town; all the schools are open air, and the nearest library is a distance away in Cape Coast. Mobile telecommunications, though, are fairly good – allowing frequent postings during the trip on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the ability to stream YouTube in classrooms.  In parts of Yamoransa, I sometimes found mobile Internet connection more reliable than I do on Metro North in some parts of Connecticut and New York City!

Two things not lacking in Yamoransa are open minds and open hearts. “Yamoransa is the kind of town you drive by on your way to someplace else,” according to Hugo Perez ’93, a documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn and part of the YASC delegation. “It is not the kind of town that expects a group of strangers to travel from overseas to take an interest in their community.” Perez notes that, given the circumstances, it would not have been unusual “if we felt like an invasion force.” Instead, he says, the reception made it feel like “we were a large group of new neighbors, and every one of us was taken in hand by someone in the community.”

After this enthusiastic welcome, the YASC participants and our AFS Ghana counterparts worked quickly and effectively with our new Yamoransa neighbors. Various teams focused intensively on medicine, public health, business, education, arts, and athletics. Some facts and numbers convey the scope of our endeavor:

  • A medical clinic, led by 33 Yale corps members and by staff from the UCC Health Center, did health screenings for nearly 1,000 patients, and offered treatment, advice, referrals, and/or preventive measures for many. An enhanced focus on malaria diagnosis was possible this year, thanks to equipment donated by QBC Diagnostics.
  • 19 Yale corps members worked with AFS Ghana volunteers and local residents to construct an Information Communications Technology center for the town — first identified as a priority in 2012, when foundation work was begun. This year’s group continued the construction, and Yale volunteers have been assisting with fundraising efforts to see the project through to completion.
  • 16 Yale volunteers worked with local groups of bread makers, dressmakers, taxi drivers, hairdressers, and kenkey makers. (Yamoransa is renowned for kenkey, a fermented cornmeal dough, with dozens of roadside kenkey stands along the roads leading to town.) Teams helped the business people, mostly women, launch a program of cooperative buying to lower costs, as well as other financial planning, and marketing.
  • Close to 100 of the Yale team spent all or part of their days leading academic enrichment programs, assisted by local teachers. They engaged 800 elementary and middle school students in subjects including visual arts, photography, poetry and other writing, geography, videography, and science.
  • 21 Yale corps members, with AFS Ghana volunteers, ran athletics clinics with 180 local youth, shuttling to university fields half an hour away.
  • A public health team of 10 Yale participants taught classes, did surveys, and gave away 200 pairs of eyeglasses, with the latter effort made possible by donations from New Eyes for the Needy and support from UCC’s optometry department.
  • 13 Yale corps members led an afternoon heart health program planned in conjunction with the International Cardiovascular Health Association.
  • Yale and AFS Ghana volunteers conducted college-mentoring workshops with 900 students at four high schools in the region, including a new partnership with Zawadi Africa for one session.

At the end of this year’s program, Nana Akwa II, chief of Yamoransa Kojokrom, told residents, Yale corps members, and AFS Ghana volunteers, “When a group of people come together over a shared idea, they can succeed.” He was speaking both about the tangible impact described above – and about less tangible, yet still real, measures of success in Yamoransa and among the Yale corps members.

Kwame Otchere, national chair of AFS Ghana and our key adviser, said, “The people of Yamoransa have rediscovered their potential and are working together for a common good.” According to Otchere, the two YASC visits have been catalysts, and “the University of Cape Coast continues to strengthen its operations and dealings with Yamoransa as a result of the lift the YASC project brings.”

“When hard-working, talented people like those in Yamoransa are given some support and mentorship – a friendly helping hand – they are motivated to redouble their efforts to achieve their own personal goals,” Perez observed.  “I think that the YASC has helped Yamoransa to believe in itself more than it had before.” 

Nana Akwa II described that impact first in 2012: “We were a village that had lost it community spirit. You helped us find our spirit again. You lit a fire under us. You made us believe that things are possible.”

On our first day in the town this year, Emmanuel Arthur, a 15-year-old student I first met last year, sought me out to share a poem, “The Light of Hope,” with his thoughts of our work.  “A light appears from nowhere to arrive at somewhere. The light of hope, The light of help,” his poem says. It concludes, “Y-A-L-E helps us see the light. The light of tomorrow is the light of hope.” His poem, in turn, fired the spirits of many of us who met him: He and other young people gave us hope.

Every Yale corps member I’ve spoken to agrees: Our worldviews were enhanced by exchanges with Yamoransa and AFS Ghana colleagues. We experienced the truth of a maxim seen on the back windshield of a taxi in the village: “Givers never lack.”

Wisdom spotted on a taxi in Yamoransa: “Givers Never Lack.” (Courtesy Anne Kornfeld ‘86 M.F.A.)

“The work we did made me more reflective, more grounded, more realistic, more patient, and more thankful,” said Jeanie Ross, a Houston resident who worked along with her husband, Jonathan ’92 J.D., and their children. I heard similar sentiments from other corps members. Ross says the efforts helped her family recognize “common threads that unite our experiences” with the families they met, bonds that help in “overcoming the cultural divides that can separate us.”

Working alongside Yamoransans and Ghanaian college student volunteers changed our perceptions. One common experience, perhaps a surprise to some who don’t know Ghana, was an abiding sense of security. Leslie Creane, a 1997 Yale School of Architecture graduate who lives in Hamden, Connecticut, noted, “The culture shock for me was how safe Ghana is. Children [in Yamoransa] borrowed our cameras freely and there was never a doubt that our cameras would be returned. Walking through Accra [on] Sunday night … between 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., the most dangerous thing we faced was possibly tripping and falling.” I concur: During the 18 days in Accra and Yamoransa, I felt safer than when wandering about New York City, New Orleans, Washington, New Haven, or Cincinnati in prior months.

The ability to see anew and more truly is one of the greatest gifts from the Yale Alumni Service Corps to take back home. We oburonis (the word for “white people” oft-heard from small children as we walked around town) may have brought eyeglasses to Yamoransa, but it was as much our eyes that were opened, our ears that heard anew.

In Yamoransa, I worked as a kyerɛkyerɛnyi – Fante for teacher. In the classroom, and on hours of walkabouts around town, I often shared with my pupils music by singer/songwriter Paapa hMensa, a rising star of Ghana’s music scene, now studying abroad at Reed College in Oregon. His song “Pure Water” offers sonic akwaaba, celebrating Ghana and sampling the sounds of street-side sachet water hawkers. It was a huge hit amongst the youth of Yamoransa. “Mr. Michael, play ‘Pure Water,’” I heard again and again.

Another of Paapa’s songs, “Now that I’m here,” featuring rapper and record producer Jayso Skillions, served as a soundtrack for my trip. In the song, he sings from his perspective as an African student in the United States having to deal with American’s pre-conceived notions of his country and continent. One day in Yamoransa, 15-year-old Cecilia Nyarko sang along as I played the song on a loudspeaker. The song had become hers. A week earlier, in Accra, I saw Paapa in concert. Virtually all the 500 Accrapolitan youth around me sang word-for-word along with Paapa and Jayso. “Now that I’m here” was their anthem.

Paapa asks, of his story and words, “Do they make you try, just a little harder, to learn a little more than you learned before.” That is the work of YASC, too: Try a little harder; learn a little more. Paapa challenges, “Be hungry for truth and thirsty for understanding; confusion is like falling, conviction is like landing.” Jayso’s part in “Now that I’m here” brought my own confusion to a solid landing:

This is my home, yes, I’m in my zone, let’s
break and talk about perception and what is known facts
they got it wrong, they got it wrong
Make I tell you the truth
cause the story they telling you is wrong
all they showing is slums, but they have slums too
poverty and crime don’t they have some too? …

I know say some people dey struggle, truth be told
but look below the surface and you will know
that everything ain’t everything they telling you on screens
the beauty of our continent, hospitable human beings
these Africans are black and proud with dreams like you
come see it for yourself you will see, like you
we have our good and bad, so don’t just show the bad
and make it look like that’s all we have

Thanks to the akwaaba embrace offered to 159 Yale graduates, family, and friends, by the residents of Yamoransa and the staff and volunteers of AFS Ghana, I was able to look below the surface and to know everything I’ve been told about their home is not true. Thanks to the Yale Alumni Service Corps, I was able to see for myself many people with dreams, to see the good as well as the bad, and to know I must do my part to show some of the good as yet still too unknown in my home country.

Places like Yamoransa have real and persistent challenges – as do the South Bronx, southeastern Kentucky, the shantytowns of France’s urban outskirts, and scores of communities that comprise much of our human condition. YASC, true to Yale’s deepest traditions, helps us to see that such places are not first and foremost problems – they include people with promise and potential. Yamoransa might at first glance seem as far from Yale as any place can be. Yet, with a little time and a lot of determined effort, we learn we are not so far from each other after all. We all have spirits and can lift each other.

As the 159 corps members departed Ghana for their homes, it was clear all of us had learned about hospitality and community. Yale has much to offer Ghana – and Ghana has much to show us as we seek to be more welcoming, innovative, and accessible.

Many YASC members will no doubt seek ways to remain connected with Yamoransa and with Ghana. Connie Jarowey ’82 M.P.H. noted, “The hardest part of the trip was the fact that it felt unfinished — to a person, the volunteers felt we had only just begun our mission.” I concur: Our spirits were fired, but the work is not yet finished or fulfilled.

The AYA is considering ways to sustain and grow connections – with Yamoransa, the University of Cape Coast, and other facets of Ghana. There are also exemplary academic and research partnerships well established, such as those by Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute. More efforts, in multiple sectors, can develop for the good of Ghana and Yale alike.

Yale alumni in Ghana, including the increasing number of Ghanaians who return home after study abroad, will be a vital force in this endeavor. The Yale Club of Ghana is growing, having just hosted a three-day conference in Accra that showcased many leading Yale graduates living and working in Ghana and other West African nations. Just before I left Ghana, I visited with Kwaku Osei ’12, who is working at MEST Ghana, an innovative start-up hub in Accra. Like many Ghanaians who have gone abroad to study, he’s committed to his country’s future. His confidence, shared by so many other young people, is great news for Ghana.

YASC, academic partnerships, and, especially, the talents and aspirations of Ghanaian Yale graduates all prove that when akwaaba meets boola boola, there can be a mighty mutual inspiration society with tangible impact for Ghana, for community, and for Yale.

Michael Morand, the deputy chief communications officer of Yale and a graduate of Yale College and the Yale Divinity School, participated in the 2012 and 2013 Yale Alumni Service Corps in Yamoransa, Ghana. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @MimoCT. The reflections above are his own, based on time with YASC in Ghana, personal travels in Accra, conversations with other YASC members, and ongoing conversations with friends in Ghana. He expresses special thanks to Puneet Batra ’02 M.S. and Lata Prabhakar ’97 B.S., the volunteer leaders and producers of the 2013 YASC Ghana program, and to Kwame Otchere and all of the staff and volunteers of AFS Ghana. He gives a special shout-out to Paapa hMensa and Jayso Skillions for their inspiration and for permission to use the lyrics to “Now that I’m here”.

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