With trip to Ghana, students continue College's commitment to rural village

Aug. 17, 2007
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of News and Public Information
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

It was after throwing a Frisbee around on the lawn between Maryville College’s Anderson Hall and Sutton Science Center one day last February when Joe Norskov, then a junior, decided to do something that would change his life.

He said “Yea” to Jason Barnes’ simple question: “Hey, man, do you wanna go to Africa this summer?”

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“I usually procrastinate with my summer plans, so here was an opportunity to plan early,” said the psychology major from Fayetteville, Tenn. “What Jason was talking about sounded amazing – a whole month in another country. From there, it was a matter of finding out how to get the money to go.”

Barnes, a Bonner Scholar and friend of Norskov’s from the College’s Ultimate Frisbee Club, was planning a trip to Ghana to volunteer at the Junior Secondary School of Bompata. Barnes’ trip, which was being paid for by the Bonner Foundation, would also satisfy his scholarship requirement of 280 hours of service over the summer break.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” said Barnes, also psychology major at the College. “And I wanted to go to Africa because I’ve always heard about the extremes – extreme wealth, extreme poverty. I wanted to see for myself and not go on what other people said.”

In planning, Barnes and Norskov had the opportunity to learn more about Bompata from then-seniors Sarah Hailey and Christin Marshall who visited the village in 2005, also as Bonner Scholars. Anna Nichols, another MC student, visited a year earlier.

All five students have helped strengthen the College’s relationships with the Ghanaian village, the Presbyterian Church there and other non-profits in the area.

Established four years ago by then-Volunteer Services Director Jennifer Cummings West ’95, partnerships for service-learning opportunities for Maryville College students were the ideas of West and then-student Frank Twum-Barimah ’04. Twum-Barimah, the son of the Presbyterian minister in the village, enrolled at Maryville College through the efforts of alumnus the Rev. Dr. George Carpenter ’53 and his congregation, Jamestown Presbyterian Church in Jamestown, N.C.

“I met Jenny [West] a few years ago when I was volunteering with my church youth group somewhere,” remembered Barnes, who grew up in nearby Knoxville and graduated from Bearden High School in 2005. “I attended the College’s Summer Youth Get-A-Way as a high school student and met Frank. Talking with him, I decided I’d like to do service abroad, and as a Bonner Scholar, I knew that that was a real possibility.”

Barnes said he asked his friend to join him because MC students who had visited Ghana previously told him that the month-long stay would be less overwhelming if he had another fluent English speaker with whom he could share his thoughts.

“Joe’s a really good friend of mine from the Ultimate Frisbee Club and cross country team,” Barnes added. “I knew he had applied to become a Bradford Scholar [students who earn scholarship dollars in exchange for tutoring adult learners], so I thought he would be open to volunteering.”

Prior to arriving in Bompata, the two college students knew that they would be teaching English in the village school and living with the Twum-Barimah family in the church’s manse.

They knew they weren’t going to see “westernized Africa” – they didn’t want to – but from their residence hall rooms on Maryville College’s campus, they couldn’t totally imagine what everyday life in Ghana would be like.

Landing in Accra, Ghana’s capital, on May 30, they learned quickly that life was very different – and in many cases, a lot harder, than in Tennessee. Spending four hours in traffic just to get to a house on the other side of Accra where they would spend the night was eye-opening. The all-day drive from Accra to Bompata was, as well.

Barnes said he didn’t see a lot of social polarization; most of the people he saw in the streets of Accra and in the outlying villages were poor.

But the Twum-Barimahs, their family and the church parishioners welcomed them with a hospitality that even the Southerners had never experienced.

“They picked us up at the airport,” Barnes said of his hosts. “They were all smiles when we walked out there.”

The only white people in the village, the “oh’bronis” (Ghanaians’ word for “white people”) became instant minorities. But instead of feeling anxious, as many minorities do, Norskov and Barnes said they were treated like celebrities, even though they requested no special treatment.

“I wanted to show them that Americans are down to earth, not out of touch,” Barnes said. “We washed clothes and dishes outside, and helped them cook, just like other family members.”

That attitude served them well in the school and church, just as it did in the Twum-Barimah household, but the condition of the school was a constant reminder for the young Americans of how different their world was from the Ghanaians’.

Although the Presbyterian-supported schools are better than the government-funded schools in the African country, they are still primitive by U.S. standards, Barnes said. Approximately 120 children were taught in the school’s three crowded classrooms. Every morning, drinking and washing water is carried in buckets from a tank at the high school, located about a half-mile away. Electricity is not dependable. One of the school children’s weekly chores is cutting the grass of the schoolyard with machetes.

Still, Barnes and Norskov found the children they taught extremely happy and committed to their education.

“They really care about their education because they know that an education is going to open doors for them,” Barnes said, adding that the children of Bompata probably don’t know what the schools and houses of many of their peers in the Western Hemisphere look like.

And if their parents or grandparents know, he added, they don’t show resentment or envy.

“They’re so happy,” Barnes said. “They give their cares and worries over to God.”

At the Junior Secondary School of Bompata, the Americans primary responsibility was to teach English. To do that, they took turns, speaking and writing sentences on a blackboard in the school.

“We pioneered team teaching in Bompata,” Norskov joked.

Although Ghana’s official language is English, differences in pronunciation and vocabulary usage between the Africans and Americans made communication difficult. And most people at home and in the markets of Bompata speak Twi, they said, which uses tones to distinguish words.

After teaching English at the school for a few days, Barnes and Norskov came to the conclusion that the children needed a better foundation in the language, so they tailored their lessons to include more basic concepts and recitations.

Lessons weren’t always about pronunciation and sentence structure, though. Barnes said he took the opportunity to encourage them in leadership development, stressing to them the importance of not only an education but in participation in their government. As a republic, Ghana is governed by a parliament elected by the people.

“I wanted them to know that education was important and that voting was important, too,” Barnes said. “The government there can positively impact their lives.”

Outside of the school, they challenged the children in soccer matches and introduced the Ghanaians to Frisbee.

“Most had never seen a Frisbee,” Norskov said. “It wasn’t long before they were taking the tops off of buckets and using that to toss around.”

They attended church with many of their students and fellow teachers. In native dress, they worshipped and danced with the members of First Presbyterian Church of Bompata.

Living with the Rev. Kwaku Twum-Barimah (whom they called “Papa”), the Americans saw firsthand how spiritual the people are. In addition to “giving their cares and worries over to God,” they involve their pastor and their church in all of life’s matters, Barnes said. Guests at the house were numerous and frequent.

“Papa would perform cultural and religious rites for people,” Barnes said. “He was there for all of their physical and spiritual maladies.”

Before Norskov left the United States, a man told him that he would learn a lot more from Africa than he would teach it. If the MC student doubted him then, he doesn’t now.

“I’m still processing the trip and trying to comprehend what impact it will have on my life,” he said after returning to the States nearly two months ago.

Already, an impact is evident.

A server at Maryville’s Tomato Head, a socially-conscious eatery, Norskov said he doesn’t live and die by the three-square-meals-a-day tradition; he eats when he’s hungry. He’s also very conscious of the food he throws away, especially the proteins that are so hard to come by in west Africa. He said he’s a lot more grateful.

A relative of his noticed the change and asked “What happened to Joe?” His reply: “I guess he went to Africa.”

Barnes said he’s a changed man, as well.

“We really do live in a great county and we take it for granted,” he said. “But leaving Ghana was really sad. I miss it and how simple things were there. They don’t care about your clothes or the car you drive. Who you are matters, not what you have.”

Except for Frisbees.

Today, that little piece of sports equipment matters to the newly converted Frisbee aficionados living in Bompata.

Barnes and Norskov left with the school children all of the discs they took to Ghana. Just as it was integral to the Americans’ conversation about visiting and serving in Africa together, so it was in bonding with the children of Bompata.

And when the next Maryville College students travel to Ghana to work and serve, they just might find a Bompata chapter of the College’s Ultimate Frisbee Club.

“Throwing a Frisbee and kicking around a soccer ball were easy ways to connect with the children there,” Barnes said. “We all understood the general concepts of the games, so when someone messed up or acted goofy, we’d all laugh, and when someone did something really great, we’d congratulate them.

“Those games became easy ways to share smiles.”