Blog from Abroad: Musings from a crossroads

Sometimes Cape Coast looks like Charleston, but my experience here is vastly different. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

Sometimes Cape Coast looks like Charleston, but my experience here is vastly different (Photo by Olivia Cohen).

Last week marked the halfway point of my time in Ghana. Nine weeks down, nine more to go. Yet it feels like I’ve been here for much longer.

The first few weeks of an experience like this are packed full of newness. Every day brings with it unexpectedness, novelty – you’re just groping around for some understanding of your environment. Lately though, I feel like I have a handle on things here. I no longer freak out when the water stops running or the electricity turns off. I’m not afraid to take a taxi downtown and run errands by myself – a prospect that once seemed beyond dangerous. I have my regular spots to eat out and I know how to bargain at the market.

Still, I am an American in Africa, and some things are difficult to adjust to. My classes, for instance, remain a mystery most of the time. Oh we decided not to meet today? The class was changed from 11 a.m. to 6 a.m.? The quiz that we’ve been promised for weeks is actually not happening? What homework? Classes operate largely on a word-of-mouth basis among the students, with a mysterious link to the professor that never makes itself clear during lecture. By the time I figure out how to be a good student here, classes will probably be over.

Also with the advent of classes came a whole different set of challenges regarding white privilege in my academic work. It’s just small things, but it’s undeniable. For instance, I am the only person in my history class who is allowed to choose my own essay topic, a liberty which I took full advantage of by picking an interesting subject with a vague link to the class, while everyone else’s topic is strictly assigned from the syllabus.


And then sometimes I think that Ghana and America have almost nothing in common… (Photo by Olivia Cohen).

In addition, three other obrunis and I took quizzes in a second class that were graded separately and handed back a week later than everyone else’s. What makes this a privilege? Ours were graded by the professor, who gave us all A’s and B’s. The rest of the quizzes were graded by the T.A., who didn’t pass a single person. I know that it’s wrong but seeing as how I live in a constant state of confusion when it comes to school, I’ll take what I can get.

Even back home, the second half of the semester always seems to go by faster than the first. Realizing this, my friends and I have decided to pack these next few weekends full of all the places we keep saying we want to visit but never do, and take full advantage of being here. Because honestly, it is unlikely that any of us will come back to Ghana. It’s not that we don’t like it but there is no point in coming here if you don’t have a reason to. And unless we start working for NGOs or the State Department, there will not be a reason. This is not a vacation destination.

However, there is still a piece of me that wonders how my understanding of this place would change if I were to stay longer. Five months is just enough time to adjust to a foreign culture without really adapting to or understanding it. Five months is how you felt at the end of your freshmen semester at Charleston: excited but exhausted, and ready to spend the holidays with your family and old friends. And for those of you who have passed that mark, how much has your understanding of the college and Charleston as a city changed since then? I am still discovering new places and new people back home, and I’ve already been there for two years. I can imagine the same process would apply if I were to remain here longer.

Being in a third world country is no walk in the park. (In fact, there are no parks here. The concept of beautiful public space is totally foreign.) I can imagine myself living abroad in a less-developed country for a year or two after I graduate, but beyond that, I don’t think I could do it. I am a thoroughly western lady who misses hot water and coffee shops. Maybe I’ll feel differently eight weeks from now but at this halfway junction, I’m looking forward to going home.

Olivia Cohen is a junior double majoring in Political Science and International Studies. She is studying abroad this semester in Cape Coast, Ghana through a bi-lateral exchange program. 

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