I spent a week in Ghana, West Africa, helping run the annual Coastal Ocean & Environment Summer School in Ghana (COESSING) in Accra August 5-10th 2019. COESSING is an annual summer school that focuses on sparking interest and teaching scientists from across West Africa in oceanography and environmental sciences to encourage and train them to increase their global participation in research and teaching. It was started in 2016 by Professor Brian Arbic from the University of Michigan and has since grown to include ~15 professors, post docs, and graduate students from across the US who spend a week in Ghana helping teach and run the school. My adviser, Adam Simon, has been part of the school since 2017 and invited me to join the crew this year – I am so incredibly grateful to have had the chance to go and volunteer! This year we had about 100 participants from Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Togo, and other West African countries who range from undergraduate and graduate students to recent grads, university faculty, industry scientists, and maritime researchers. This year’s summer school was hosted by Regional Maritime University located in southeast Accra, the capitol city of Ghana.
The structure of the school is designed to teach participants new skills and concepts to help them in their own research or studies. Hands-on lab experience is not currently part of the Ghanaian curriculum in either high school or college, so we aim to provide as many labs as possible to fill that gap and help participants think critically about their work. This year participants chose between two tracks: the core curriculum track or the project track. The core curriculum focused on teaching participants about a wide range of topics from oceanography, mineral exploration, ocean chemistry, coastal systems, and modeling. Morning lectures were supplemented with hands-on labs all afternoon to give participants the chance to put their knowledge to the test and apply it to real world problems. We also added a big Python coding component to this track so participants learn the skills necessary to analyze their own data using Python in the future due to Python being a free resource. The project track participants worked in small groups led by instructors on more complex projects using actual data and other free online programs to work through analyzing and interpreting real world data. Every group had a different focus and presented what they learned on the last day of the school. Each day was filled with lectures or group work in the morning, a break for lunch, and labs or more project work in the afternoon. I helped facilitate the core curriculum track, leading a lab on palm oil production and sustainability in Ghana, assisting with a mineral exploration lab, and helping out with two Python coding labs throughout the week.
I had an amazing time in Ghana as the people of West Africa are extremely warm and welcoming and eager to learn. Accra is the largest city in Ghana, with 1.6 million people, and is right on the coast. Regional Maritime University was a short walk to the beach and the Tema Port was visible from our classroom. One of the biggest problems in Accra is plastic trash and is very evident on the beaches. Plastic waste was everywhere on the beach and constantly washed onshore by the waves. We were told that during the rainy season the streets of Accra are flooded with water and trash which ultimately contribute to the problem on the beaches after washing downstream. Seeing such dirty beaches was an eye-opening experience and a sobering reminder that we need to take care of our environment. Ghanaian food is mostly made from rice, corn, cassava, beans, and meat and is pretty spicy! My favorite dishes were grilled tilapia, red-red, plantains, and fried yams. The grilled tilapia is literally an entire fish cooked on the grill with spices and served with a spicy red sauce, onions, and peppers. Red-red is stewed black-eyed peas in a spiced tomato sauce and served with fried plantains or yam chips. They also make a tasty groundnut soup, or peanut/tomato soup, that is eaten with banku, which is a lightly fermented dough made with rice, corn, or cassava flour and eaten with your hands. Fresh fruit juices are also very common and delicious in the tropical climate.
Our last day in Ghana a few of us took a day trip to Cape Coast, Ghana, about 3 hours west of Accra by car. We left Accra at 4am to avoid traffic and ensure a return to Accra that evening in time for our flight home. Driving through the Ghanaian countryside and through smaller towns was fantastic, and Cape Coast has a beautiful ocean view and beaches (nothing like the garbage-filled beaches in Accra). We did a canopy walk in Kakum National Park and saw a native forest from above the trees and visited the Elmina Castle just west of Cape Coast. Elmina is one of about 40 castles built by European colonists on the Ghanaian coast in the 1400-1500’s when they were colonizing West Africa. These castles served a terrible purpose in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas: they were where Africans were held after being rounded up in West Africa before being loaded on boats and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean into the slave trade in the Americas. The last memories of their homeland were in these castles, and the conditions were horrendous for Africans held here. European colonists lived very comfortable lives in the upper parts of the castle while hundreds of African men and women were crowded into dungeons in the basement, where many millions died due to malnourishment, disease, and exhaustion. They were held there for months before passing through the door of no return and being loaded into the bottom of a ship headed for North or South America and sold into slavery. Having the opportunity to walk through the rooms and get a tour of the castle from a Ghanaian was eye-opening and tragic and a way to learn about the slave trade in way that’s unique from how we learn about it in the US.
Overall I had an amazing time in Ghana and met fantastic people who have the same passion for science that I do. I hope to be able to return next year and continue to help improve and expand the summer school in the future!