Sycamores spend nearly three weeks in Ghana learning about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Gold Coast’s rich past … and present.
Focus, for a minute, on the photograph above.
Melissa Woods, a junior from Indianapolis, beams as she follows the moves of her young African dance instructor. Behind her are three of her Indiana State travel companions. Barefoot in the sand, the women clap and cheer on Woods.
“To see them so emotive — they couldn’t hide that they were enjoying themselves. You can’t hide the joy in that picture,” said Andrea Arrington, assistant professor of African and African American history. “That night was magical for the students. There’s something about being on the beach, being with a really good, engaging group of dancers, who pulled them in, and the smiles on their faces.”
The students weren’t just dancing on the beach. Hours earlier, they witnessed the memorialization of the worst humankind has inflicted on one another. Worse than death — slavery.
Fourteen students and seven faculty and staff traveled to Ghana in May as part of a seminar class and a collaboration with the Bayh College of Education’s student affairs and higher education program.
The trip’s extensive itinerary was structured much like a classic Shakespearean tragedy — scenes of climatic tension followed by relative comedic relief.
And just as in the great playwright’s dramas, these moments of levity also offered a moment for reflection and deeper understanding.
“That’s why you take people abroad. I’m a pretty good teacher in the classroom, but I can’t bring them Africa the way I wish that I could, and so when you actually bring students to Africa and those moments happen — when their phones are down, where they’re not worried about if they look cool or not in front of their peers and when they’re just doing their thing — that’s why you do it,” Arrington said.
From the start, the experience was not typical: An African history course with a mix of majors — psychology, athletic training, higher education, nursing, to name a few — and then, there were two faculty to teach it.
“It was the first class that I ever had two teachers, and it was really neat because one focused on Africa, and the other focused on the colonizer,” said Hayley Bean, ’17. “It was really interesting to hear both perspectives when, so often, we’ve only been told one. I really enjoyed that. And Dr. (Isaac) Land and Dr. Arrington really fed off each other, and they were a great team.”
The 18-day trip started in the coastal city of Accra, in the west African country located just north of the equator. For the purpose of this article, the challenge is to sum up the trip’s four-page itinerary without resorting to a simple listing of activities; just know each experience is worth its own full-length story, abridged here only because of the page’s unforgiving dimensions.
After a short orientation session, the group spent one night in the bustling capital city and then embarked on a day-long bus ride to the rural northern region, with an overnight in Tamale and stops at a sacred crocodile pond and a slave camp in Paga.
“As a historian, what I’m really interested in the students doing is starting to piece together just how long the voyage was for captured slaves, because while it seems long on a bumpy bus ride, I want them to start thinking about that as part of an actual slave caravan,” Arrington said.
They paused for a few days at Mole National Park to take in both day and nighttime safaris and visit the country’s oldest mosque and the Mystic Stone in the village of Larabanga. Away from the city, the night’s stars appeared as big as golf balls, and a thunderstorm one evening provided a symphonic performance.
As the group started their journey back to the coast, they returned to Tamale, where they shopped with artisans, visited a shea butter cooperative and toured the Salaga Slave Market. Continuing to Kumasi, the group watched the famed arts of kente weaving and adinkra printing and learned about the famed Ashanti while touring the Manhyia Palace and Prempeh II Jubilee Museum.
“You’ve gone through the north; it’s hard, it’s tiring. You get to the Ashanti Kingdom and you get to really kind of enjoy the aesthetics of that but also the pride, and then you resume with some of the harder stuff,” Arrington said. “And then have to start thinking about what the psychological impact of that journey would have been on people, and then you’re at this place where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is where they get branded.’ Because it hasn’t been insulting and horrible enough, here you go, this is it, this is your last bath in African waters.”
With the experience coming to a close, the students returned to the coast and toured the haunting Cape Coast Slave Castle and Elmina Castle and nearby fishing villages.
“Actually seeing the darkness that surrounds places like (the slave castles) and trying to understand how people could treat their fellow man in such a way meant a lot,” said Joe Worthington, ’17, a political science and history major from Terre Haute. “We experienced first-hand the history that’s laid the foundations for the world we’re in today.”
A canopy walk through the Kakum National Park (followed by a hike on a much more solid surface), a community service effort at the Krofu Methodist Basic School and a chocolate tasting at 57 Chocolate, a high-end chocolatier of Ghanian cocoa, rounded out the group’s final days. They also visited a few universities, toured the Aburi Botanical Gardens and Woodcarving Village and the home of W.E.B. DuBois before enjoying a farewell performance of traditional African drumming and dance.
Aside from its rich heritage, Ghana is known as a rising star of Africa and offers a stable government and compelling environment for Arrington’s and Land’s living classroom. “It’s important to understand Ghana, not just as Ghana, but as a place in the rest of the world. We often think of the United States as the center of the world, so it’s kind of interesting to refocus,” Arrington said.
Bean, a newly minted fine arts alumna from Washington, Ind., was inspired by the country’s natural beauty and artisans’ craftsmanship.
“It’s just really interesting to see how they use their resources versus how I was trained to use mine, and I really respect the ‘less is more,’” said Bean, who is a ceramist. “They don’t have tools like I do, but their work is just as beautiful, and I think even more on the functional scale, maybe even better than ours with all the tools we have. So it makes me a better artist, learning how other people create.”
Bean, who was one of two mothers on the trip, fell ill while abroad. After a couple of days not being able to keep down any food, Arrington took her to the hospital. Bean describes the clinical experience as intimidating, but the doctor and nurses were “kind” and healed her with IV fluids and a course of antibiotics.
Bean struggled with homesickness, too. While only the arms of her daughter could cure that ailment, Bean returned home stronger than she left. “For the longest time, I either felt like a really bad art student or a really bad mom, and coming here made me realize I was actually good at both,” she said.
Dominique Davis, a junior from Bloomington majoring in psychology, is one of several students who wanted to connect with their ancestry.
“I think I wanted to kind of ‘go home.’ I want to go to each continent at least once, but (Africa) was definitely high on the bucket list. I think a lot of people in the African diaspora want to come back just to know where you came from,” Davis said. “I was born and raised in America, but sometimes I kind of feel like an outsider in the States, so (it was nice) coming here, being a true outsider and feeling so accepted.”
Garien Woods of Gary, Ind., a graduate student in student affairs and higher education, wasn’t a new traveler to Africa, as he toured South Africa as part of a faculty-led study abroad program in 2016. Woods looked forward to learning more about the local music traditions in Ghana and touring the Kwame Nkrumah museum.
“(The experience) makes me appreciate the struggles and the things (the slaves) overcame and it makes me appreciate the privilege that I have now,” he said. “I realize that me studying their culture … and just studying higher ed altogether — the slaves and others really had to go through a lot to pave the way for someone like myself. So I really take a lot of pride in that.”
Senior Aubrey Nichols’ aunt and uncle adopted a son from Ghana after being missionaries there for more than a decade. She grew up learning about the Gold Coast.
“I just think it’s really important that people are educated on that point in history,” she said. “It’s really molded America to what it is today, and it’s something we really reflect on in issues of today, like #BlackLivesMatter and racial issues.”
It’s no surprise Nichols, an education major from Greencastle, Ind., was drawn in by the children. She’s planning to save up money to return “as soon as possible.”
“I’ve never really been away from my family before, and this trip really helped me spread my wings and realize that I could do this with my life and that I do want to do this with my life,” Nichols said. “I’ve decided to declare my minor as Afri studies, so I can hopefully be a teacher here one day.”
Tamia McCree, a nursing major from Chicago, also sees a much different future. “After being down here, I’m starting to think that maybe being a travel nurse would be nice because I’d like to come back and help.”
Months after returning home, some of the travelers could not fully capture with words what the trip meant to them. All study abroad experiences change their participants, but Africa can mean so much more, with its joy and pain delivered in brutally equal doses.
“When you come to Africa, it provides a whole different perspective on the world,” Worthington said. “You hear about it and the struggles that people go through and the great accomplishments that people have made here, but actually witnessing it and experiencing it really changes you.”
To see more scenes from Ghana, go to indstate.edu/ghana.
Globetrotting Scott College of Business Professor Aruna Chandra took a group of students to southern India during spring break. Read stories, watch videos and view photos at indstate.edu/india