Welcome to my blog! I am so excited to have this back up and running so I can keep all of you up to date on my experiences in Ghana. I will be embarking on a 3 month internship in Accra with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) developing anti-child trafficking initiatives in schools around the city.

I hope you enjoy the blog! I will do my best to post regularly!

02 August, 2013

Exploring the Central Region, Ghana

17 June 2013

Today was one of those days so chock-full of memories it’s hard to know where to begin…In the last 12 hours I walked through the canopy of a rain forest, touched a live crocodile, and stood in a place that had seen unimaginable suffering. Two of these experiences seem great, but it was actually the third that will likely stick with me for the rest of my life.

We loaded into the van and left Immuna at about 9:00am and drove to Kakum National Park. Once there we took a brief look through a museum detailing the various species of plant, animals, and insects who call the park ‘home.’  We paid 20 Cedis each (about $10) and proceeded to hike with a guide and about ten others. At the beginning of the path there was a beautiful sign that read, ‘Leave nothing but your footprints,’ a motto more of us should take.
Walking through the forest canopy
The rain forest is exactly as I've always read…as you enter and hike deeper, very little light is able to penetrate the thick canopy above. The forest floor is covered with vegetation, insects and organic detritus and a strong, earthy scent mixes with the intense humidity to form an intense sensory mélange. Only a few hundred meters into the climb, I was sweating considerably, though not short of breath quite yet. As we climbed through the massive trees and low hanging vines, butterflies of every color flitted around our feet. We soon reached a platform from which the first of seven ‘canopy walks’ is suspended. Long rope bridges with study side netting span the treetops and groups of five are allowed to embark one after the other. Though the bridges teetered with each step, I never felt worried. Walking at this height afforded some stunning photo opportunities and a unique vantage point of the tropical forest below. I was amazed at the lack of animals and even birds, but I suppose there was plenty of room in the park for them to avoid the human intruders.

After the hike, we went for lunch at a restaurant on the grounds of a crocodile and bird sanctuary, which boasted over 40 crocs, hundreds of loud, yellow birds, and whitish/pink egrets. The meal of beans and plantains was quite good, but the highlight of the lunch was getting to touch a living, breathing crocodile!
Touching a crocodile!
From the dining area we could see the crocs in the water and one up on an island inhabited by the yellow birds whose nests hung down from the ends of the branches. For the price of 5 Cedis I walked, with a guide, through a metal gate and over a small bridge flanked by crocodiles on either side to the island. The sunning croc was completely still, mouth agape. Our guide walked right up to the easily 8’ long animal and touched its back. I was so intrigued that I began to move towards the croc, taking a cautious route so as to come at him from the side. Once there, I crouched low and placed my right hand squarely on his back. Crocodiles feel exactly like you think…hard. The girls each had a turn as well and as we were leaving our new friend gave us another gift when he slowly rose and began to walk in our directions. My bravery left as quickly as it had come as we hastily shuffled behind our guide. Yet another memorable experience!

The next leg of our day saw us in the city of Cape Coast for a visit to St. George’s Castle, more commonly referred to as El Mina after the Portuguese word for ‘the mine.’ This was one of the most touching and deeply moving experiences of my life and, at several points along the tour, I was moved to tears. Emotions ranging from pity and anger to remorse and hope, yes hope, coursed through me. Originally built by the Portuguese and subsequently owned by the Dutch and the British, El Mina was once the center of European trade in West Africa. Gold, wood, and slaves were stockpiled in the castle until ships came to take them away. Once inside, the castle’s white walls temporarily masked its dark history, which was brought to life by our skilled tour guide.

El Mina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana
We were first brought to the female slave dungeons which were overlooked by a balcony from which the governor could select slaves who he desired to sleep with. The dungeons were dark, crowded, and had litter air flow. Standing in a place where such horrific acts and unfathomable suffering had taken place was mind bending. On the very stones where I walked, thousands of slaves had slept, urinated, vomited, bled and died before being forced on to the next in a long chain of torturous holding cells. We later experienced the punishment cell for those slaves who dared to fight for their freedom. It was a small, nearly airless chamber with no light. Rebels would be slowly starved to death and often times rot next to other dying people.

The guide adeptly walked us through the journey of a slave all the way to the ‘room of no return’ from which slaves were forced on to boats bound for the United States and Europe. Standing in those rooms, you could almost feel the fear that these walls had echoed back onto helpless masses.
The 'door of no return'
The tour also worked its way up to the European’s quarters to show the contrast and allow visitors to see the fort from another angle. As I peered off the balcony we had seen from the female dungeons below, a group of Ghanaian children on a school trip looked up at me and I down at them and for a fleeting moment, I had to look away, shamefully staring at the ground. In that moment I had imagined myself back 150 years and could not bear the image. When I looked back up, some of the children glanced up at me and, instead of looks of horror and dread that had passed between people in our places in the past, I was greeted by giggles and beautiful smiles. As I grinned back, tears in my eyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of hope. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I walked out from El Mina’s walls and gave one last, long look at a place that I will never forget.

15 June, 2013

Akwaaba! Welcome to Ghana!

Hello from Ghana! I arrived safe and sound on June 10th and I can honestly say that Ghana has already lived up to its billing as one of the most hospitable places on earth. From the minute I stepped off of the plane and into the humid Ghanaian night, I was greeted with smiles and "Akwaaba" which means welcome in Twi. Adjusting to life in Ghana has been seamless for the most part. The IOM (International Organization for Migration) has been very helpful getting the interns settled and oriented to life here in West Africa.
Our orientation has familiarized us with the various departments within IOM and each of their projects, and has also included basic language training (greetings, numbers 1-10, days of the week, school terms, etc.), a first aid course, and several trips throughout Accra. Also included was the IOM staff retreat this past Thursday. I am so happy they decided to wait until we arrived to hold this day of team-building and fun. It helped me to get a better feel for the office culture (passionate and fun) as well as determine who works on which project. The retreat was held at the Coco Beach Resort which was owned by the Ramada group. The day ended with a real treat as the professional side of the day segued into a soccer match on the beach!
As for my role with the IOM, I will be working on an array of projects with a focus on Counter-Trafficking (CT) and Migration in Development (M&D). Child trafficking is sadly a very real problem in Ghana. Parents of impoverished families are often scammed into selling their children into modern day slavery within Ghana's fishing industry. Fishermen will promise remittances and a better life for the children including ample food and education, but in reality some as young as 4 years old can find themselves forced to do backbreaking work 14 hours a day in dangerous conditions and without pay. IOM has been working for years to rescue these children, reintegrate them into society, while concurrently educating their parents and families about the dangers of child labor. They also help thefamilies start micro-enterprises to supplement their income, allowing them to better take care of their dependents. Here's a link to the organization's website if you're interested! (IOM Ghana)
Accra has been full of excitement and surprises. Despite having recently heard all about the rise of Africa at Syracuse's African Development Seminar in Washington, it is different to actually experience it. Ghana is booming. Construction projects abound and people from throughout the continent and the world call Accra home. Behind the shiny buildings and abundant Mercedes lurks the danger of poor management of the 'growing pains' so often accompanying rapid development. This 'gap' we so often see is quite evident in Ghana. Accra is home to a massive shopping center complete with a supermarket and movie theatre. But after strolling through the beautifully kept shops and aisles of imported foods, a short walk beyond the mall's parking lot brings you to rickety shacks and open sewers.
To end the post on a happy note, I want to share one of the many reasons I am going to love living and working here. The morning commute. No, no, I'm not pulling your leg. Even though Accra's traffic is a nightmare causing a 20 minute trip to take over an hour, it's hard to be bored looking out your window. In Accra, you could get most of your shopping done on the way to work, without ever getting out of the car. Vendors peddling everything from fruits, water sachets, and doughnuts to tummy tightening machines, end tables, and cell phones weave between the cars calling out prices. A simple honk of your horn or nod of the head beckons them to your window. Transactions are extremely fast and then they're gone, on to the next "custom-muter." While I haven't purchased anything by this method yet, the vendors often come to the window just to have a curious peek at our group. These rapid interactions remind me that a smile is often the best currency!

31 May, 2013

Where's Ben is back!

A new blog post can only mean one thing...I am about to embark on another trip! This time I will be traveling to Accra, Ghana to begin an internship with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I am very excited to explore Ghana's rich culture, experience its world-renowned hospitality, and to put what I've learned at the Maxwell School into practice!

Some recent updates: After finishing my last semester in Syracuse, I loaded up the old wagon (pushing 150,000 miles and running like a champ) and eventually made my way down to Washington, DC for a seminar on current trends in African development. In addition to making me even more excited to spend some time on the continent, it reminded me just how incredible my Maxwell colleagues are. I feel so fortunate to have begun so many wonderful friendships that will assuredly carry on and I look forward to following each of their promising careers. I have no doubt that this group of young leaders will "be the change they wish to see in the world." An added perk to attending Maxwell is the ability to point to nearly any country on the globe and say, "I have a friend there." Let the Mafia be advised, from Georgia to Japan, Kenya to Palestine, you might just find me at your doorstep one day!

A healthy dose of friends and family will ensure the time between now and my departure will fly by. Though I will miss them all, it is their incredible love and support that enables me to pick up and head overseas like this and for that I am extremely grateful.

I hope to update the blog regularly as Accra should afford me decent internet connectivity. So, until I post again, be well!