There are some things you just can't learn in a classroom…
Fifteen Western students, including five from Fairhaven College, recently returned from a trip they will never forget! For four weeks during their winter break they embarked on an expedition to the Republic of Ghana on Africa's West Coast. Their charge? To examine slavery and contemporary manifestations of racial inequality, as well as conduct interdisciplinary research projects on social sustainability and sea turtle conservation in local fishing villages.
Study Abroad in Ghana involved many components, including summer reading, two courses on campus during Fall Quarter, and then four weeks abroad that included lectures from Ghanaian scholars, trips to wildlife preserves, visits to political and cultural capitals, community service projects, and tours along the former Slave Coast, including the departure point for the Middle Passage.
The research involved tagging endangered leatherback sea turtles during nesting season. "In this particular section of Ghana the turtles are considered sacred," said Dr. Seth Feinberg, WWU Associate Professor and trip instructor. "Legend says a turtle brought a fisherman back to shore after a storm, so they are above reproach. In fact, even in an impoverished nation, if an 800 pound turtle washed up on shore, it doesn't get eaten...it is revered. So the question is how can this cultural belief, and the subsequent practices by residents, be capitalized upon, knowing there are also environmental and economic implications to sustainability... nothing will be sustainable unless all three are working together."
Phase II of the trip involved designing and implementing surveys within the small fishing villages as a way to determine if they could build an infrastructure for sustainable ecotourism. There were questions that needed answering: Why is Ghana unable to develop in a sustainable way? Why is it that a country that is so resource rich, with an abundance of gold, timber, and cocoa, is so economically poor? Why is there a railroad line between where the gold is and the port, but not one between the two largest cities?
"You realize there is nothing for the tourists to do in these villages but look at the turtles," said Brandon Kilgore, a WWU senior who was a participant in the trip. "There's nowhere for people to spend the money they bring in; they show up, take a picture, and then go back to the larger city where the hotels are located...so how can the villages profit from ecotourism to in-turn improve their community? Take for instance, during the hot days just wanting to get something as simple as a Coke to help cool off, it's just not there, there is no infrastructure to handle it."
The point of their research wasn't to implement change, but instead to see if change would be possible, and while they are still working on analyzing the data from the preliminary study, it may be that something larger needs to be done to address the social, economic and ecological concerns before there is lasting change.
"More than anything it is a transformative learning experience for these kids," Dr. Feinberg elaborated. "They experience heat, there are bugs, and poverty is all around. One of my students commented that she will never again take for granted the ability just to have clean water to brush your teeth - they can't help but think about their place in the world. We are trying to broaden their thinking and make them concerned global citizens."
Another important part of the expedition was the implementation of community service projects along the way: from cleaning the local soccer pitch, to spending $200 to buy supplies and re-paint the local school; or even donating another $200 to create signs to educate the public about the turtles' habitat. The students had a chance to realize the impact of small changes in the community.
"I think about all the additional good we could have done in just the month we have been back," said Brandon. "I mean, it felt nice in the moment to be doing good things for that community, but when you think about it, you realize it is on such a small scale."
Perhaps that's why the elders and chiefs throughout their trip stressed how important it was for them to share their stories and the information they collected with as many people as they could...to try and make the kind of global impact that will not only improve the conditions for the people of Ghana, but also serve as a model for all developing nations.
Written by Jeremy Mauck