Academic Safari

I figured it was about time to talk about classes now that I’m down to the last day. Wait what?! Yep, looks like tomorrow is the last day of classes for the semester, for study abroad, and for my senior year. YIKES! But, back to the classes, we’ll save the freak out for later. I mentioned the classes that I enrolled in earlier in the blog but I had no idea what to expect from them so all I really gave you was the titles, and perhaps a guess at the content. Now that we’re down to the end over here, I have a little bit better handle on the courses. Let’s start with history.

History of Western Medicine in Ghana started out as my favorite class. Now, I know some of you may think it strange that the class I most enjoy in Ghana is focused on western medicine, but I assure you there is much more to the class than European history. The class involves in depth descriptions of colonialism and the effects it had on the health and living conditions of both Europeans and Africans living in Ghana.  This class has been especially interesting not only in the contents but in the way the class is taught. For the first few weeks of class I had an amazing professor teaching the course. He was an excellent speaker and he kept the class interactive and engaging. It was also very interesting to hear about colonialism from the Ghanaian perspective. The professor provided very interesting insight on Ghanaian views and attitudes towards colonialism, which were, to my surprise, not all negative. He did gesture to myself and a few other Americans in the class when mentioning something about the colonists, which was a touch awkward at the time. But, he made up for it with his immense level of knowledge on the subject and ability to engage everyone in the discussion. After the first few classes, we were assigned a new professor for reasons unknown and since then the class hasn’t been quite as appealing. The content and readings however are still very intriguing and I do still enjoy learning about the history of health in Ghana.

Next we have Socio-Cultural Dimension of International Health. This class has involved an investigation into the distinct elements of culture and their effect on health. This class has been interesting in content but what I like the most about it is the interactive aspect of the class. The students in the class have been together for three years and they are all very comfortable with each other in class.

SIDE NOTE: Once you choose a major, you take classes in a very strict progression that are often only in your specific department. When I shared my class schedule with my history TA, he informed me that I was on an “Academic Safari” (hence the title) because my classes were all in different departments, something that is unheard of here.

The class is organized more like a discussion than a lecture. The students are always making comments or asking questions to the professor or each other. While this gets frustrating at times, it’s been interesting to hear the views the students have about current health issues in Ghana. Some notable points include discussion about HIV/AIDS, contraception and violence against women. In an area where HIV/AIDS and sex are highly charged and still stigmatized subjects and the familial structure is predominantly at least moderately patriarchal, the conversations regarding these topics got heated pretty quickly. The students however, were always very interesting in hearing the opinions of myself and the few other Americans in the class. They often asked for ‘Sister White’ (referring to us American girls) to give our perspective. While the method of asking was a bit unorthodox, it was still very interesting to participate and observe in the discussion.

You’ve already heard all about Twi. It’s still a pretty foreign language to all of us in the class. Some days I feel like a master and other days I can’t fathom ever being able to speak the language. I did have my oral final the other day and I think it went decently. Fingers crossed!

Last but not least, Traditional Dance! This class has been quite the emotional roller coaster simply because I go back and forth between loving and hating the class. I love the class because it is so fun to learn the dances and to hear the drum patterns and see the Ghanaian students and TAs move flawlessly. I hate the class because, as an oburoni, I am not wired to move like they can and there are times (more often than not) where I just cannot follow the drum patterns and I stand with a blank stare on my face hoping for a dance miracle. But with that said, I am quite positive that once the final performance is over and done with, I will not regret taking the class and I will look back with only good things to say about the class. So far this semester we have learned three dances. The first is called the Damba. This dance originated in the Northern region of Ghana and is mostly performed by royalty or those in power. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take videos of us performing the dance but here is one from a traditional Damba festival. You’ll see in the link below, the traditional garb for the dance includes the smocks, hats and boots. We did not have to wear this but all the moves are the same.

The second dance we learned is called Kundum. This is a harvest dance that is performed in festivals to celebrate the hard work that was put into the harvest. There are six moves in the beginning that represent the harvest. The first movement is spreading the seeds. The second movement is to celebrate the end of the planting stage. The third movement is picking the fruit from the trees and placing them in your baskets. The fourth movement is digging up the roots. The fifth and sixth are symbols of celebration and travel to new farming lands. There is a freestyle section in the middle and then it ends with all the dancers hobbling off the stage to represent the elderly that can no longer work in the harvest. These descriptions will make more sense once you see the dance. Again they wouldn’t let us film it but I found a video from the CIEE program 2 semesters ago performing the dance in the courtyard of our International Programmes Office. This probably isn’t the best example of the dance but it will give you a much more accurate depiction of what my fellow oburonis and I look like when performing Kundum. Although, after watching it myself, I would like to think that I have a little more coordination and flow than these kids, but who knows.

The third dance is by far the hardest of them all. I don’t know the actual name of it because the TAs always say it really fast and I haven’t quite caught it yet. But it is a war dance that is different from the other two both in emotion and structure. The other two dances are performed in circles with smiling faces while this dance is more stationary with no smiling. The only analogy that I can think of to describe the dance is to look at it like a song.  There is a chorus that is the same every time and about 10 verses that are all different and are never performed in the same order. The master drummer controls which verses will be performed and it is up to the dancer to hear the extremely subtle drum cues that signal each part. To the Ghanaian dancer, who was raised hearing drum beats similar to the ones in this dance, picking out small differences in the rhythm is no problem. But to the novice oburoni dancer, this can get pretty tough. I usually find myself choosing a fellow student in the class to watch and simply accept the fact that I will probably always be one step behind. P.S. I have made it a personal goal to find the name of this dance and a proper video to demonstrate to you all the difficulty and trickery involved in this dance.

Now that classes are essentially over, I have had the opportunity to look back on the semester as a whole. In the original description of this study abroad program, CIEE states in the handbook that we should not expect to be academically challenged while in Ghana. For the most part, I would have to agree with them. Compared to the rigors of the UW curriculum, the University of Ghana seems much more manageable. That being said, I do not want to take away from the school. The courses, students and professors are all different from those in the United States and the academic system is tailored to accommodate the Ghanaian styles of teaching and learning. The challenge for me has come in the form of adjusting to this system instead of trying to force my views of what academia should be.

I have learned a lot from these courses but this is insignificant in comparison to what I have learned/am learning outside of the university. My academic challenge extends beyond exams and papers and into figuring out the vast and ever-confusing enigma that is Ghana.

2 thoughts on “Academic Safari”

  1. Hey everybody!

    So I am 99.9% sure that the third dance is called Atsiagbekor. Can you blame me for not being able to understand it? Anyways, there are a lot of variations of the dance especially if it’s performed in different regions of Ghana. This video is the closest one that I’ve found to the version that I will be performing tomorrow for my final (yikes).
    The beginning is very much like what we’ve done but they start doing some crazy things around the middle of the video that thankfully I did not have to learn. As with all of the videos, it was the closest I could get without smuggling a camera into our dance studio. If anyone has any interest in seeing the real thing, feel free to track me down in Madison next month and I’ll show ya my version of the dances 🙂

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