A University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff initiative recently gave students from UAPB, North Carolina A&T State University and Tennessee State University the chance to travel to the western African country of Ghana.
The study abroad program allowed students from the three historically Black colleges and universities to learn about agricultural topics and familiarize themselves with the history, culture and people of Ghana.
Student participants included Allison Malone, 2022 UAPB alumna of agricultural engineering; Jai Lewis, major of agricultural science at Tennessee State University; and Jeremiah Pouncy and Lyric Armstrong, animal science majors at North Carolina A&T State University.
The students were accompanied by Emmanuel Asiamah, Ph.D, UAPB assistant professor of animal science; Nina Lyon Bennett, Ph.D., professor and assistant dean for academics at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences; and Annette Fields, instructor/counselor for the UAPB Office of Basic Academic Services.
CULTURAL IMMERSION IN GHANA
"Our idea was to give young African Americans a true global experience rich in culture and history," Asiamah said. "The program included visits to the coastal slave castles that were part of the European Atlantic slave trade. So, this was a bigger experience than what American history books can give you. Visiting those castles was more like a pilgrimage for the students – a chance to connect with their ancestors."
Malone said the visit to slave castles made a lasting impression on her.
"It is a humbling experience to go to a slave castle because it shows you your ancestral lineage," she said. "It also meant a lot to be there and understand the processes they went through. We are the dreams and hopes of the slaves, so when we go visit the castles, it is like we are returning home."
Pouncy said the moment that stood out the most during the visit to the slave castles was seeing the "Door of No Return" at Elmina Castle. It was through this door that millions of Africans were forced onto ships heading to America where they faced a life of slavery.
"Being at the slave castle and being face to face with the door of no return was one of the most impactful moments for me on the trip," he said. "It was a very eerie feeling as we walked through the castle. I was able to look around and see where my ancestors were held as slaves, as property. It felt relieving to return to the door where my ancestors were taken away, never to return home – that I was able to, in a sense, return for them."
Asiamah said he enjoyed watching the students' openness and willingness to experience a new culture. In addition to regularly interacting and playing games with KNUST students, they also enjoyed interacting with locals – everyone from restaurant waiters, to shopkeepers and workers at the market.
"At restaurants, our students would try to say a few phrases in the local Twi language, which always got a positive reaction from the people working there," he said. "They also enjoyed many visits to the local markets, where they learned how to bargain. Several students would approach me and brag about the great deals they managed to make."
Asiamah said he was especially touched when the students told him about how their perceptions of Africa had changed thanks to the program.
"They made observations about how developed Ghana is and about how it seems everyone is hardworking and entrepreneurial," he said. "When we went to Kakum National Park, we took a walk on a 100-foot-tall suspension bridge that hangs over the lush forest canopy. After that trip, several students commented how they never expected Africa to be so green."
Another cultural excursion was made to the Bonwire Kente Village, where the students learned about the production of handwoven, traditional kente cloth.
"I loved learning about the different symbolism in weaving kente cloth," Malone said. "The colors, designs and symbols have a specific meaning and purpose. There is a story behind the cloth."
They also visited the W.E.B. DuBois Center for Pan African Culture, where they learned about how the African American scholar and activist spent his final years living in Ghana, the first African country to win independence from colonial rule.
"My biggest takeaways from this study abroad program were that African history and culture gives me so much life and joy," Pouncy said. "Everyone there was so amazing, welcoming and loving that it made me feel at home, even though it was my first time being there. It also showed me that there is still a multitude of information about the world that I still don't know. There are truly unlimited possibilities out there as well. I will be back to explore Ghana, the rest of Africa and the world as well."
HANDS-ON AGRI EDUCATION
Asiamah and Fields organized the program in coordination with the UAPB Office of International Programs and Studies. Most of the event programming took place at Asiamah's alma mater, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana.
Bennett oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between UAPB and KNUST.
"The signing of the MOU marks the beginning of a long-term partnership that will enable students and faculty to engage in research collaborations and future exchange programs between the two universities," Asiamah said. "Next year we are planning on having KNUST students come to study agriculture at UAPB. Over the years, we plan to grow this exchange program and increase the number of students who will benefit from it."
"While in Ghana, our participants had the chance to engage in a number of hands-on activities related to agriculture," Asiamah said. "They joined KNUST students in the field to learn about maize breeding, visited a catfish farm, where they learned a little about the business side of agriculture, and even saw how palm weevil insects are being farmed for value-added food products."
During a visit to a poultry farm, students learned how to sort chicken eggs without using machinery.
"The poultry farm activity opened the students' eyes and put things into perspective for them," he said. "Because they were sorting eggs manually, they gained a better understanding of just how quickly egg-sorting machines in the U.S. work. They couldn't keep up with the farm technician who was able to sort eggs incredibly quickly."
Asiamah said he got the idea for a study abroad program to Ghana when Fields visited one of his classes while recruiting students for a trip to South Africa.
"At the time, I joked, 'Why not plan a program to my home country of Ghana,'" he said. "But as time went on, I thought that kind of trip would make a lot of sense, especially considering my alma mater's well-known agricultural department."
Asiamah said he was also inspired by Ghana's "Year of Return" campaign in 2019. The initiative sought to bring foreigners from the Black diaspora to visit Ghana.
"Famous African Americans including Don Lemon and Steve Harvey traveled to Ghana as part of the initiative," he said. "I thought it would be great to somehow make it possible for students from an HBCU – who were not as well-off as the celebrities – to visit Ghana and feel a connection to Africa too. Unfortunately, the pandemic ruined any plans to visit Ghana as part of the Year of Return campaign, but that's when I decided we must plan a program to the country for UAPB students."
In planning the program, Asiamah worked with Pamela D. Moore, Ph.D, associate dean for global engagement at UAPB, to secure funding from the 1890 Center of Excellence for International Engagement and Development, which serves the nation's 19 historically black 1890 land-grant universities. Involving students from other 1890 universities and pursuing partnerships with universities in Ghana made the program more impactful and helped the grant get approved, he said.
"In addition to supporting Dr. Asiamah's program, the grant we received is providing critical resources to jump-start signature study abroad programs in the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries and Department of Human Sciences," Moore said. "The center received its funding through congressional legislation that included the establishment of Centers of Excellence at 1890 land-grant institutions. Center funding is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)."
Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.