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Ghanaian Ambitions

I spent Tuesday on the crowded roads of the northern suburbs of Accra, catching up with old friends and marveling at transitions and transformations: those my friends have made, as well as the changes made to a city I love and dearly miss.

When I lived in Accra, in the mid-1990s, the city proper ended a few miles from the downtown, around the airport that serves the city. A trip to the University of Ghana at Legon felt like a trip to the outermost suburbs, if not altogether to the bush. The neighborhoods around the airport and university are now fully part of the city, blessed with hi-rise buildings, expensive houses and well-maintained roads packed with traffic. Finding the edge of the city now requires driving to the edges of the Accra state, to towns I’d only heard yelled by tro-tro drivers, advertising the terminus of their routes.

With the help of Edmund, who works with my friends at PenPlusBytes, I traveled to Medie, Accra, a suburb I’d visited roughly ten years past. My memories of the last trip were of a two hour long ordeal over rutted roads, packed with traffic, to a place that had more in common with Ghana’s rural villages than with its bustling capital. Now there’s a well-paved four lane divided highway, complete with flyovers and exit ramps… most of the way. The interruptions in infrastructure were a great reminder of what had come before – as we decelerated from 120kph to 50, it was like moving back into my memories of the chaotic, crowded and slow city.

The building of the Nsawam Road, as well as the M1 and other major Accra highways has transformed the geography and real estate of the city. My friend Bernard Woma was an ambitious dreamer when he settled in Medie twelve years ago, moving from the crowded zongo of Nima to a plot of farmland a kilometer from the execrable road into the city. I saw him in Accra on Monday and he insisted I had to come to his house to see how things had changed. He wanted me to see that he’d made a sane investment, and it’s clear he’s right. I hadn’t expected some of what accompanied the transition: gated and planned communities lining some stretches of the road, John Deere dealerships on others. Signboards for herbalists, who now that they’re recognized as “traditional healers” work in public, instead of in secret as juju men. More signboards for evangelical churches. More excavators.

Bernard is one of the top traditional musicians in Ghana: when President Obama visited the country, he played the traditional drum salute to welcome him, and he later gave drum lessons to Michelle and the presidential daughters. His project for the last ten years has been the building of the Dagara Music Center, his school to teach the dance, drumming and xylophone traditions of the Dagara people. For years, Bernard has been spending the academic year in the US, pursuing a bachelor’s degree at SUNY Fredonia and a masters in African Studies at Indiana University, then returning to his home to teach his music to American students hardy enough to brave the road to his home, sleep in his spare bedrooms and endure his mix of teaching, teasing and good-natured hectoring.

Bernard in his drum room

He built it and they came. His courtyard is now a mosaic of signs painted by the different college groups who’ve visited him. His equipment room features 20 of the massive xylophones (gyil) he trains his students on. We stayed for lunch and I met half a dozen students, staying in Bernard’s house or a nearby hotel, taking lessons from Bernard’s extended family and circle of friends. As student drummers do, they began beating patterns on the picnic table whenever a lull crept into the conversation and I found myself drumming along, playing patterns I learned from Bernard almost twenty years ago.

As I headed out, Bernard was preparing his neatly painted Mercedes bus for a run to the airport to pick up the next dozen students. Roughly a hundred students will pass through this summer, some for a few days, some for weeks or months. A few years ago, Bernard would tour the US with his dance company to support the nascent academy – now the revenue from the summer students allows him to focus on his studies while he’s in the states.

When I studied with Bernard, it was a happy accident that followed from a run of rough luck. I came to Ghana to study at the university at Legon… which was on strike the year I was there. I started studying with teachers I’d been pointed to by friends in the US… who turned out to have serious drinking and personal problems. Bernard found me moping in a corner of the National Theatre and rescued me, offering to teach me. I couldn’t be more thrilled that hundreds of people are now getting the opportunity to learn from the master, no happy accident necessary.

About 45 minutes away from Medie, over humorously rough roads, is the village of Berekuso, a small farming town in the Eastern Region. On a hill above the village is a gloriously modern, architecturally stunning university campus. And, as you might imagine, there’s a story behind it.

Patrick Awuah left Ghana decades ago, first to attend Swarthmore College, and then to go on to a successful career at Microsoft. About a decade ago, he returned home, determined to build a world-class liberal arts college in Ghana, so that his children would have the opportunity to get an education at home that prepared them for life anywhere in the world.

I visited Patrick for the first time about a decade ago, when his university was a small office in the Labone neighborhood of Accra and some ambitious architectural drawings. I visited a few years later and was impressed to find a small, compact college in a leafy Accra suburb, with several dozen students training on a mix of liberal arts and IT skills. The library was an overgrown shelf of books and the computer lab looked much like any of the cybercafes that dot the city. Still, it was deeply impressive to me that he’d navigated the academic bureaucracy of Ghana and been able to start an accredited private university.

The main courtyard at Ashesi

None of that prepared me for the stunningly beautiful campus that now houses 500 students in Berekuso. The main buildings are organized around a terraced, landscaped courtyard filled with flowers. Tile-roofed dorms flank a basketball court and look out over the hills and the village. Ashesi University is simply one of the most beautiful academic institutions I’ve ever seen.

Patrick toured me around the campus along with Computer Science professor Dr. Ayonkor Korsah, and we sat down with a handful of Ashesi faculty and students. It became clear very quickly that it’s not just the facilities of the university that are world class. Ashesi is attracting some of the brightest young students in west Africa, and faculty who are excited about teaching in a liberal arts tradition with a focus on project-based learning. We talked about ways Ashesi faculty and students could engage the local community in research and design experiments… exactly the same set of questions I find myself asking as I try to build the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

Patrick Awuah shows off the new campus

I admitted to Patrick that, when he’d described the scale of his ambitions to me, I’d assumed he was crazy. Now I find myself wondering whether I’ve been thinking to small in building the institutions I’ve tried to build.

This trip was a precursor to the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi, my chance to reflect on the community and site we’ve built over the last eight years. My friend David Sasaki helped put those matters into scale, reflecting that Facebook has also been around for about eight years, and has had a trajectory that seems to humble anything else in comparison. But there’s something to be said for judging the success of a project on their own ambitions and merits. I’m thrilled for my friends Bernard and Patrick, and challenged by their success in bringing their visions to scale. Here’s hoping that I feel as proud reflecting on how far Global Voices has come once our summit is at a close.

3 thoughts on “Ghanaian Ambitions”

  1. Pingback: Ghanaian Ambitions | Lukor.net

  2. Hi, Ethan,

    I stumbled across your blog while looking for a former student of mine in Accra in the 70s. What a treat to read your “update” to Accra – certainly not the Accra I knew teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism and living near the Nima Post Office. Thanks so much.

    Efua Serwah

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