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Far From Home, Briefly
Why 154 Yale alumni paid $2,000 each, plus plane fare, to work for free in Ghana.
When the five buses roll into the Ghanaian town of
Yamoransa, hundreds of children are waiting on the red dirt plaza in front of a
low-slung concrete-block school building. The children bob and shout as 160
Yale volunteers climb off the buses and cautiously skirt the steep open sewer
that separates the highway from the plaza. For five days in late July and early
August, in this impoverished town on Africa’s Atlantic coast, this scene will
repeat itself every morning: the volunteers plowing through the throng, the
Ghanaian children reaching out for handshakes, saluting the visitors with high
fives, and sometimes crowding around two ten-year-old volunteers to touch their
long hair. (The Ghanaian schoolchildren have buzz cuts, boys and girls alike.)
On this morning, as the volunteers migrate to their
various posts, 15-year-old Emmanuel Arthur waits eagerly for three Yale
volunteers to make their way up the hillside to an open-sided cinderblock
classroom. When the teachers arrive, they’ll help Emmanuel and his classmates
puzzle out the inauguration-day poem written for President Obama. In the
classroom next door, a mother-daughter team will hand out sheets of white paper
for airplanes. Each child will fold a plane, frame a hypothesis about how far
it will fly, test the hypothesis, and write a lab report.
Meanwhile, three dozen men and women, some wearing
scrubs, climb the slope to the temporary medical clinic they’ve organized.
Already, scores of patients await them, filling rows of plastic chairs that
line the clinic terrace. Down in the plaza, two volunteers from the business
team are sitting under the shade of a peaked tent, discussing flour prices with
some dozen women who make their living selling bread baked in backyard ovens.
To this hillside town, in a country where one in every
four people lives in extreme poverty, the Yale volunteers have brought a week
of summer school, the medical clinic, laborers to help construct a new
community library and information technology center, college counseling for
high school students, and a sports camp where the children will shoot baskets,
play soccer and other field sports, and learn how to launch a Frisbee. Volunteers
on the business team are advising not only the bakers, but also other women
with tiny businesses: styling hair in one-seat home beauty parlors, selling
fermented maize (kenkey) at the highway junction, or custom-sewing
dresses copied from catalog photographs.
These volunteers are among 750 alumni and friends who,
since 2008, have taken part in trips organized by the Yale Alumni Service
Corps—a program of the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA). AYA has run service
trips to China, Brazil, Mexico, and other countries, trips that have attracted
people who had never before shown an interest in alumni activities, says lawyer
Ellen McGinnis ’82, a former chair of the AYA board of governors: “A lot of
them said they only opened the e-mail because the word ‘service’ was in the
subject line.” For trip number eight, to Ghana, alumni (and friends and family)
have come from Ontario and Denver; Los Angeles and New Haven; La Marsa,
Tunisia; and Makawao, Hawaii. Each paid about $2,000, plus airfare, to take
Bringing together alumni to serve others “is a major
sea change for alumni associations,” says Mark Dollhopf ’77, executive director
of the AYA, who goes on nearly every service trip. Yale is pioneering this
practice, he tells the volunteers gathered on day one in the Coconut Grove
Beach Resort, where the group is staying. The trips are a way of connecting
alumni to Yale. And through service, he says, we who enjoy the advantages of a
fine education can “pay it forward” by helping others.
In his booming voice, Dollhopf addresses a question
that must have occurred, in some form, to everyone in the room: “Some people
ask, ‘Can you really change the world in a week?’ Yes you can, because it’s
where you start.” On the first of two days of orientation, before our work
starts in earnest, Dollhopf assures us that we will not be mere
“voluntourists,” because partnerships with Ghana-based organizations will help
sustain what the group sets in motion this week.
The main partner so far is AFS (originally the American
Field Service), an international volunteer group best known for its student
exchanges. AFS has brought two dozen Ghanaians, some of them college students,
who are donating their time to help with translating, doing errands, and
generally running the show. But when asked if Yale will return to Yamoransa
next year to continue what we’re about to begin, Dollhopf says it’s too soon to
An American friend who lives in Ghana tells me: “It’s
easy to get things started here. The test is whether they’re going a year
later.” For our project, the test case might be the new library and tech center
that is under construction at one end of the Yamoransa plaza. Before our
arrival, local volunteers have dug most of the foundation, laid half the
concrete-block perimeter, and installed spikes of rebar where the columns will
rise. (Money for materials came from both Yale volunteers and locals.) This
week, alumni who usually study the tax code or sell real estate line up to
carry concrete alongside Ghanaian volunteers. They all wait their turns for
head pans filled with concrete. Then they plod uphill, the shallow steel bowls
balanced on their heads. By week’s end, they will have finished the foundation
and poured half the slab floor.
Just up the slope from the construction site sits another
building, or rather half-building, consisting of a few rounds of cinderblock
and skeletal rebar. It was begun as a church six years ago, then abandoned.
Trees and bushes are growing in what would have been the sanctuary. Who will
finish the technology center once we’ve gone?
Emmanuel Arthur raises his hand nearly every time David
Schneider or Michael Morand ’87, ’93MDiv, asks students a question about
“Praise Song for the Day,” written by Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84
for Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Morand moves through the poem, asking, “Are there any
words you don’t know?” One hard word is “declaimed,” in stanza six: We
encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
/ words to consider, reconsider. “Whisper, whisper,” murmurs Morand,
and then: “DECLAIM! A pastor, when he gives a sermon, declaims.”
Two classrooms away, a teacher named Felix Koranchie
watches students building four types of bridge trusses with craft sticks.
Koranchie is on summer break from Yamoransa’s Mount Zion Methodist Junior High
School, where he teaches religion and information technology, but stopped by
“to learn something new from my brothers who have come here.” While the
students work in teams, he and media arts specialist Anne Kornfeld ’86MFA have
been discussing “student-centered” instruction. “The teacher should be a
facilitator,” Koranchie says. “The old idea is just standing in front of the
board talking to the students.”
Meanwhile, Morand is wrapping up. They’ve completed a
quiz on American culture. (It also asks what color Morand’s socks were
yesterday. Today’s are purple.) “I will tell Professor Alexander how well you
learned her poem,” he tells the students.
After class, I ask Emmanuel what he thinks of Morand.
“I like everything about him,” says Emmanuel. “I plan to become like him in the
future.” Become like him? In what way? “The way he talks to people,” Emmanuel
replies. “He’s very patient. He don’t rush. When he talks to you he wants you
to understand what he’s saying. And I love him so much.” Emmanuel wants to be a
doctor. “I want to save lives. I don’t want people to die every day.”
Down the hill at the medical
clinic, behind a curtain sewn from cotton flour sacks, physician Ricky
Schneider ’73, ’77MD, is interviewing a 28-year-old man whose two-year-old son
is lying motionless in his lap, eyes shut. Another volunteer has already
examined the little boy and treated him for malaria, which kills 20,000
children in Ghana each year. The father tells Schneider he has malaria, too. He
gets malaria three or four times a year, so he knows the symptoms: chills and
no appetite. He’s been feverish for five days, but his long hours as a mason
have left him no time to buy medicine. Here he can save $1 by getting the pills
for free at the clinic pharmacy.
Schneider writes the prescription. “On the first day,
we looked under the microscope for malaria,” he says. “Now if they have a
recent illness that they describe as malaria, we treat them.” The patients were
An hour later, I catch sight of the father again.
Despite his illness, he has joined the volunteers and is shoveling gravel at
the technology center.
In the evenings, under the roofs of three surfside
gazebos at the resort, the Yale volunteers talk, and they worry. Over meals of
rice, fried fish, fried chicken, French fries, and fried plantains, they ask:
where will Yamoransans get follow-up medical care when the temporary clinic
closes? Will anyone finish building the center? Will Yale come back next year?
Among those who worry is Evans Yeboah, a 28-year-old
Ghanaian investment analyst who is using vacation time to lead the AFS
volunteers. If Yale wants credibility, we must return, says Yeboah. “If you
can’t sustain a community project, it becomes a tourist project,” he tells me.
“Next year, if you don’t continue, then you are not sustaining.”
Why did the AYA choose Ghana? The country has critical
advantages: it’s a stable democracy; it has a growing economy (newly lubricated
by oil); many Ghanaians speak English; and direct flights connect New York with
Accra. And Yale already has connections here, with the University of Ghana and
others. Ghanaian health officials—and Ghana’s new president, John Mahama—have
spent time at Yale through its Global Health Leadership Institute. Several Yale
professors have long-term research projects in Ghana. Emmanuel Asiedu, a
Ghanaian investment banker, spent a semester at Yale as part of the
university’s World Fellows program for “emerging leaders.” It was he who put
the AYA in touch with the AFS in Ghana, and through AFS with a university near
Yamoransa and with local tribal chiefs.
If the service trips strengthen these ties or create
new ones, they will strengthen Yale’s claim to being a global university.
“There are only a few comprehensive global universities,” says Morand, who is a
communications officer at Yale. “We are one of them. To remain one of them you
have to develop even deeper partnerships around the world.”
And despite their concerns, many alumni love the trips.
Yamoransa is the second service trip for New York asset manager Puneet Batra
’02MS. Batra says he enjoys the type of alumni who join service trips; they’re
not only smart, but also down to earth. California financial software saleswoman
Lata Prabhakar ’97 is on her fifth trip. For her, the best part is the chance
to make connections with local people: “What other opportunities do you have to
develop a relationship in just a few days?” She still keeps in touch with a
young woman she met in China.
Mornings and evenings, the buses from the resort to
Yamoransa and back squeeze through the narrow, trash-strewn streets of the
village of Elmina, past an estuary filled with slim wooden fishing boats flying
hundreds of colorful flags. We entertain ourselves by reading the names of
commercial enterprises: the Triad College of Theology and Computer Training;
The Lord is my Shepperd Fashion; a booth labeled No One is Perfect Except the
Lord, which apparently sells lottery tickets.
Twice daily, we also pass the towering whitewashed
castle on Elmina beach, a nexus for the slave trade. On our second orientation
day, we toured Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, another slave trade center.
The guide told us that three million captured Africans had passed through the castle’s
“door of no return” on their way to the slave ships. When Ghanaian AFS
volunteer Roger Anim Ofosu visited the door with us, he said, “I’m sure I have
relatives abroad and I don’t even know.” Volunteer Andrew Burgie ’87, as an
African American, expected to feel only distress at the castle. But he found it
unexpectedly affirming. “If the point ‘of no return’ were really successful,”
he says, “I wouldn’t have seen it.” Burgie, an industrial hygienist at Hunter
College, says that to return here—and with teaching skills to offer—“is a nice
circle of completion.”
For Monika Advocate ’87MA, who teaches international
business, entering the castle was less upsetting than the view from the castle.
“You look at this abject poverty around this castle, right now, and this is the
country that is allegedly [among those doing] the best in Africa. Why is this
country so rich in natural resources, including open land for agriculture, and
is just so unbelievably poor?”
Those are questions worth asking, says Daniel Magaziner,
an assistant professor of history at Yale who specializes in twentieth-century
Africa. “Objectively, offering people a medical clinic is a good thing. The
question is, do people ask why they don’t have a medical clinic the other 360
days a year?” In the 1980s, says Magaziner, the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund required Ghana and many other African countries to
embrace free trade, deregulation, and privatization at the expense of state
power. As a result, “a lot of things states would provide are no longer provided.”
He believes the trip is valuable, but fears it could reinforce “stereotypes
about African need and American power, without critically examining the
relationships between these things.”
Manhattan paralegal Kate Uehlinger would have liked
more examination. As a group, she says, “we’re not really discussing the
reality of the situation—how impoverished they are,” she says. Riding the bus
through Elmina, she has seen little girls picking through a roadside garbage
dump. Uehlinger calls the poverty “a huge shock.”
Dollhopf notes that the group spent their first two
days in Ghana learning about the country. “We’re working hard to prove that we
are not voluntourists,” he says. “That being said, there are issues that are
far too complex for us to address in a week’s time, and we’re very aware of
that.” It is important, he says, to strike the right balance between learning
Fifteen-year-old Madeline Frank has made sense of what
she’s seen, in this way: “I realize people are people no matter where they
live. These people happened to be born here and I happened to be born in
America. It’s all luck.”
By week’s end, it seems as if our project may have
lasting effects. The bakers, seamstresses, kenkey sellers, small
traders, and hairdressers have all set up trade associations; they have elected
officers, collected dues, and opened bank accounts. Representatives of the
bakers’ assocation—which has 44 members in all—have traveled two hours to the
big flour mill in the city of Takoradi and negotiated an 8 percent discount for
large orders. The dressmakers are arranging with the Coconut Grove resort to
seek sewing orders from hotel guests. One of the dressmakers, 30-year-old
Elizabeth Forley, has learned she needs to make a banner advertising her
business, to hang at the crossroads in Elmina, and she needs to start keeping
records. “I have to know my income and expenses and the time that I use for
sewing,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot.”
On Friday night at dinner, Dollhopf announces that the
trip has gone so well that the Yale Alumni Service Corps will definitely return
to Yamoransa next summer. Applause fills the dining gazebo.
On the Saturday morning after our work week, en route
to a closing ceremony, the buses halt short of the Yamoransa plaza, blocked by
a parade. It turns out that the show is for us. Three Fante chiefs are swaying
above the marchers, reclining in palanquins, each one carried by four men with
sweat coursing down their faces. Young girls are dancing their way forward to
the drumbeats. At the plaza, hundreds of local people, and crews from three
television stations, join us for more drumming and for speeches. The chief with
whom we had the most contact, Nana Akwa II, announces that Dollhopf and Kathy
Edersheim ’87, codirector of the trip, have been made honorary elders of
Yamoransa. “We know we have honored only two out of the lot,” Nana Akwa tells
the crowd. “But the symbolism is that, as a group, you are part of this
community.” Afterwards, he tells me that seeing the volunteers work has
motivated local people to be more active. “The spirit of communal labor is now
enkindled,” he says.
His comment seems to confirm what a Ghanaian
acquaintance at Yale told me before we left. “The visibility that you’re going
to have in Yamoransa is really going to catalyze the community,” despite being
there for only nine days in all, said Elijah Paintsil, an assistant professor
of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine. Our most important contribution,
he said, would be intangible: to convey that people in Yamoransa matter,
including to the outside world.
After they’re back home, members of the business team
get in touch with several Coca-Cola employees in Ghana who have been assigned
to keep guiding the women’s trade associations. Nurses who were on the trip are
hoping to arrange an exchange that would send Yale nursing faculty to the
nursing school at the University of Cape Coast, near Yamoransa, and host
Ghanaian nursing students at Yale.
Bob Unsworth ’86MFS, who led the construction team with
Gordon Stanton ’82, is one of several alumni who have begun networking with potential
donors in the United States and Ghana in hopes they will chip in for materials
and computers. “We’ll pull every string we can,” says Unsworth, an economist.
He’s confident that Yamoransa will have a completed library and technology
center. “Everybody worries it won’t be finished,” says Unsworth. “But this
isn’t a group that takes no for an answer.”
After a month back home in California, Darcy Troy
Pollack ’87 remembers the trip as exhausting. “It was not a vacation. It was a
life experience,” says Troy Pollack, a member of the AYA board of governors.
“In the middle of the trip, if you’d asked me, would I go back, I’d say no
way.” Now, she says, she’s already planning what kind of protein
bars to pack for next summer.