The infamous Elmina Castle is perched on a hill, overlooking a particularly attractive portion of the Republic of Ghana's coastline. Built by the Portuguese in 1471, Elmina--whose name comes from the Portuguese for "the mine"--was once the largest slave trading post in the world. In the 18th century 30,000 slaves on their way to the Americas passed through its confines each year.
On a guided tour of the castle earlier this month, Jacquelyn Jackson was overcome by a flood of emotions, she says, as she walked through Elmina's dungeons and the living quarters of the slaves' European captors.
"My heart couldn't help but ache as the slave living conditions were described," says Jackson, a postbaccalaureate premed student. "Although a feeling of sadness consumed my heart, I did feel a sense of strength knowing that my ancestors went through some sort of similar treatment and were able to survive."
Jackson was one of six Hopkins students, three of whom are African-American, who took part in an inaugural cultural exchange program to the Republic of Ghana during intersession. The new program, sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, allowed six students--five Homewood undergraduates in addition to Jackson--to spend two weeks in the African nation, attending lectures and touring cities, villages and historical sites.
The program's originator was Ralph Johnson, associate dean of students at Homewood and director of the Multicultural Student Affairs Office, who first visited Ghana to attend a conference in July 2000. Johnson, who is African-American, says the experience allowed him both to learn more about the slave trade and to gain a better understanding of the struggles of a developing nation. In particular, Johnson says he was struck by the disparity between "the haves and have-nots" in such a country.
"It was such a transformative experience in my life," Johnson says. "I came back really wanting to address the issues that I witnessed firsthand. One way I thought of doing that was to educate other people so they could decide what they could do to perhaps make it better."
Johnson says another reason for the program's creation was the shortage of study-abroad programs in Africa available to Hopkins students.
"The programs we have are mainly to Europe and Asia, and a few to South America," Johnson says. "But I've come across many students who seemed very interested in traveling to portions of Africa."
Formerly a British colony known as the Gold Coast, Ghana achieved its independence in 1957. Today, Ghana has an estimated population of 18.4 million and an economy based mainly on agriculture and mining.
The students were led by Johnson; Regine LaForest-Sharif, past president of the Black Student and Faculty Association; and James Almond, student organization financial coordinator.
The group spent the majority of the time in Accra, the nation's capital and home to the University of Ghana, where they attended lectures focused on social, political and economic issues that impact the country.
In order to get a better feel of how Ghanians live, the group spent a day in urban Kumasi, home to the Manhyia Palace and one of the largest open-air markets in Western Africa. Another day was spent touring small villages in the city of Cape Coast, where the group visited two of the largest "slave factories" in Africa, the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina.
Lev Horodyskyj, a junior, says that while the entire trip was "incredible," the visit to Elmina was by far the most stirring."One thing I remember was the horrific smell in some of the dungeons and cells, still there after some 200 years."
Horodyskyj says he went on the trip simply "to see a different place." He came back, however, with memories of a place he didn't want to leave and a newfound interest in any course involving the study of Africa.
Johnson says that based on the success of the trip he intends to make it an annual program.
Jacquelyn Jackson says this is one trip she would recommend to all her fellow students. "I elected to go on the Ghana study tour to broaden my perspective of the world and learn firsthand about the Ghanaian culture," Jackson says. "What better way to learn about another culture, than to experience it?"
While all the students went to Ghana to experience something new, not everything in the country was unfamiliar. In Accra, while driving around in a van, the group noticed a sign upon which were painted an arrow and the words "The Johns Hopkins University."
Curious, the group told their driver to follow the sign--which led to a facility of the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Communication Programs and an impromptu introduction to its work raising public awareness of family planning, HIV/AIDS and child health information issues.