By Jiaman (Maggie) PengA Cosmopolitan’s taste of Ghana
Though Alicia Bateman grew up in the tiny town of Lederach outside Philadelphia, she has always loved cities and global cultures. She visited Zhenjiang, China on a museum program, and currently volunteers for Success Saturdays, a tutoring program that connects middle- and high-school age refugees from Burma and Myanmar to college students. Her global interests played a crucial role in choosing colleges, when the time came.
“Going into college, if a school didn’t have options for studying abroad, I wouldn’t have looked into it,” said Bateman. True to her word, the environmental engineering junior at ESF spent six months at the University of Ghana last semester.
Much of Bateman’s interest in the environment stems from her parents, who ran a family business that provided both pond ecology lessons for kids, and design and construction of water landscape and aquatic plant greenhouse for homes. Bateman said that she’s interested in urban sustainability, specifically, “melding green infrastructure and urban design to create healthy, livable city.”
She sees opportunities in spatial design, mixing the vibrant culture that exists in different communities and putting nature in urban systems. “By incorporating natural systems and using the ecological benefits of nature in the cities, you’re solving so many problems,” she said, mentioning water catchment and tree shades that reduce heat island effect and air pollution as examples of how cities can be highly efficient.
She had three criteria in mind when she chose places to study abroad: the engineering classes offered should be ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accredited, classes have to be taught in English, and she wanted to go somewhere she had little to no cultural understanding of.
“I don’t think I could’ve pointed Ghana out on a map before I started researching different places to go,” said Bateman. Yet, at the same time, she was intimidated by the thought of going somewhere she had zero connections to.
At the end of July 2018, she flew from New York to Casablanca, Morocco, and then to Accra, the capital of Ghana. On the way, she met a Ghanaian woman who took her under her wing. The woman grabbed Bateman to go through the customs with her—which one usually does only with family—and waited with Bateman at 3 a.m. for her luggage.
“That was like my introduction to Ghanaian culture—so welcoming, so wanting to make you feel comfortable and at home,” said Bateman.
She studied at the earth science department at the university located in Legon, a suburb of Accra, and took classes to learn Twi, a dialect of the Akan language widely spoken by Ghanaians. The country’s official language is English, which helped Bateman read signages everywhere.
“I really didn’t have many shocks, [it was] similar and familiar even when it was all brand new,” said Bateman.
She grew accustomed to eating traditional foods with her hands, like banku, a Ghanaian dish made from fermented corn and cassava dough, usually served with soup or stew. Fufu is another dish common in West Africa that’s typically made from cassava and plantain flour. On her way to the earth science building, Bateman would usually order an egg sandwich for a few cedis, the Ghanaian currency, from a group of women under a tree who set up a propane grill with freshly-baked bread. It was cheaper to buy food than to make it, and Bateman said she actually saved money during her time in Ghana.
Bateman studied alongside Ghanaian students on a campus of 40,000, learning about geology, road construction and the mining process (Ghana has a huge mining industry with a fair share of illegal mining issues and pollution.) She also conducted an independent study on Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted water bodies in the city of Accra, examining issues of indigenous land rights, solid waste, electronic waste, open-pit burning, urban flooding and squatter settlement.
Besides attending class, she also joined the intramural Basketball team and she traveled by Tro-Tro, an agreed-upon bus system in Ghana with independently-owned vans that run on set routes and fare prices. It wasn’t the most intuitive method of travel, but Bateman warmed to it with determination.
“I traveled to Togo, and then to the Volta region and then Kumasi,” she said. “Each step is like a four-hour Tro-Tro ride, and I had to take multiple Tro-Tros to get to different places, but I did it, you know?”
One of her challenges was pronouncing the bus stop names and just making sure she didn’t get lost. Bateman had a cell phone just for Ghanaian numbers and a locked smartphone only useful with WiFi, but she didn’t let the fear that something could happen deter her from traveling without internet.
During the Harmattan, the dry, dusty season between November and March, Bateman said that you could look right at the sun because there was enough dust that your eyes wouldn’t hurt. She learned the history of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, visiting the two slave depots during the transatlantic slave trade.
When Bateman found the Mattlawie Ecological Regenerative Center in the town of Have via Facebook, she began helping on the farm. The owner studied permaculture and Bateman found joy in knowing how similar their understanding of the world was. “I was there a week, but I could’ve stayed a year,” Bateman said.
That was her favorite place in Ghana.
But six months soon flew by, and she prepared to leave during Ghanaian students’ winter break. “I was in denial,” Bateman said. There were so many things she hadn’t seen and done, and friends she couldn’t say goodbye to in person.
She hung out with a few friends until midnight, took a Tro-Tro back to the house, packed quickly, took a half-hour nap, and went to the airport. She had a ten-day layover in London, so the fact that she was still traveling made the end of the six-month experience feel unreal.
Bateman said she’s not much of a crier, but on the bus ride from London to Bristol, “I had Ghanaian music on, and I was just looking outside the window watching the London hills go by. That was probably the closest I got to the crying.” It had been three days since she had left Ghana.
“I was just like ‘ah, everything’s just not the same anymore,’” she said. “After you’ve been away for six months, you realize ‘normal’ isn’t exactly the same anymore and your perceptions are a little different.”
Meanwhile, coming back to Syracuse in January was a journey too, though a short one. She said she imagined that she would have a “renewed excitement” for the area, but it took about two days for everything to feel the same again.
Her time in Ghana, however, has inspired her to explore the city more and “get across I-81.” It was one of the reasons she involved herself in Success Saturdays: to get off campus and engage with Syracuse community members.
“You have the university community, but there’s a larger one too that the university fits into,” Bateman said, reflecting on her own time in Syracuse, “I’ve been here two years and I really haven’t engaged with the larger community on a level that I would like.”
The study abroad experience also built her confidence. She formulated her own network from nothing in Ghana and for Bateman, it felt reassuring to be able to build a safety net anywhere, even if she had had no initial connection.
Bateman plans to graduate early in December this year and work abroad first: settle in a single city, partake in the community and invest in that city working on improving its infrastructures.
After coming back from Ghana, the question she got the most was, “what was it like?”
Before, she shied away from talking about Africa for lack of knowledge and experience, she said, but she has better answers now.
“Now I can actually share a story that has at least my truth behind it and my experiences. It’s not everyone’s experiences, it’s not everyone’s truths, but now I have content [for] a conversation.”
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.