In 2008, I took my first trip to Ghana, West Africa. It had taken a few years for us to get UW – Platteville’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders up and running, so it was exhilarating to take our baby chapter’s first footsteps into adulthood. The professor acting as our advisor was a Ghana native and did his best to give us a good idea of what to expect, and my mother and sister had shared as much as they could about their three-week trip to Kenya a year earlier, so I felt that I was as ready as anybody could be to experience Africa for the first time. However, anyone who’s been to Africa can tell you that nobody comes home unchanged.
We flew into Accra, the capital of Ghana, and many parts of it are nearly indistinguishable from any modern city in the developed world. That made the living conditions we witnessed in other parts of Accra and the rest of the country all the more shocking. Most of the country lives in literally third world conditions: no reliable source of potable water, huts made from mud or scrap metal, no sanitation, etc. Sometimes the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” was astounding. The best example of this that we saw was a scant plot of corn being farmed out of an old building foundation right next to a giant new mansion.
The most difficult experience for me to come to terms with was the night we told our van driver to just go wherever he felt like taking us for dinner. He ended up bringing us to the most high-class joint in all of Ghana. It was odd enough for me, with fairly humble beginnings myself, to be eating at such an incredibly ritzy and expensive establishment, but it was difficult not to be thinking about the meager dinner our friends in the village would be having. The real gut-wrencher was looking out from the seventh-story balcony our dinner table was at and seeing the state of the city and people around us. We could see anything from the presidential palace to the worst slums in town. Immediately below us, we could see businessmen in nice clothes buying all they could afford for dinner: a meager bowl of rice from a street vendor in the slum. All at once, standing there at the balcony railing, everything we’d seen and experienced made me catatonic for a while. Even though we all tried to have a good time at that dinner, I am pretty sure that at one point or another, every one of us took a turn ending up in a trance, staring out across the city for a while, pondering the ways of the world and our place in it.
Possibly even more surprising than the conditions were the people. Most seemed acutely aware of how terrible their living conditions are, yet they seemed more cheerful and happy than many people we know in the developed world. Some even expressed the desire to be given the means to succeed on their own instead of being offered hand-outs, which was exciting, considering Engineers Without Borders strives to follow a “teach a man to fish” policy.
When faced with all this, the living conditions, the disparity, the people’s attitude, it’s impossible not to wonder, “What can possibly be done to even begin to make it all better?”
(Submitted by my son, Nick. He has too many cool pictures for just one post, so I might just have to put out more of his pictures tomorrow.)