Ghana Half 1: Cultural Contrast, Difficult Moments, and the Help of Others

“Really understand that you’re gonna have difficult moments, and that’s when your real character comes through. It’s very easy when you’re winning; it’s very easy when your scoring goals or you’re winning trophies. I think the challenge – what you’re going to be judged on – is when you go through a difficult moment.

It’s going to happen. I always tell young players: I can’t guarantee many things, but I can guarantee that you that you’re gonna have tough moments in your career… Football is a team game, and you need a support system around you. You can’t do it by yourself.”

Claudio Reyna
Current sporting director for New York City Football Club
Former US national team captain

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It had been nearly a month since arriving in Ghana – the longest period of my life without seeing a fellow American – and the first compatriot to cross my path is Captain America himself, Claudio Reyna. His above words, stated during an interview at Right to Dream Academy, keenly capture the inevitable but unforeseen challenges that have revolved around my Ghanian experience.

(The next few paragraphs describe the end of my time in South Africa. If you’re tired of reading about Cape Town, please skip.)

Before arriving in Ghana, I spent six weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, a global tourist hotspot. Cape Town seemed to offer everything: from some of the most marginalized communities in modern history lingering in the shadows of Africa’s shining beacon for democratic ideals, to multiple world-renowned natural landmarks – Table Mountain, Robben Island, Cape of Good Hope – standing as close neighbors to the vibrant urban metropolis that has developed in their back yard.

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But on September 8, it was time to turn in my Hundai rental car and continue on to the next leg of my Wanderjahr. I said “bye” to my host family, friends, Ubuntu Football Academy, Cape Town. After dropping off the keys at Kristenhoff Rental Cars, I packed my belongings into Shawn’s bucky, and we left for Cape Town International Airport.

Steering through the wind and rain on well-paved roads, Shawn conducted my “exit interview,” a friendly series of reflective thought-provoking questions concerning my time in Cape Town. Questions like: “What were your expectations of South Africa, and how do they compare to what you found? In your opinion, what is Ubuntu Football Academy’s biggest strength and weakness? In under a minute, describe your Cape Town experience.”

I cherish these twenty minutes with my new friend.

Once arriving at Cape Town International, Shawn ushered me to security where we said our “goodbye” for now. Up next, an eight-hour overnight flight to Dubai for a short layover, before another eight-hour flight to Ghana’s capital city of Accra.

The first leg of my travels nearly went off without a hitch. I say “nearly” because of several unpredicted disturbances courtesy of two comically social (and at times heavily intoxicated) South African women in their mid-to-late thirties, whom I was seated next to.

Alas, after a nearly sleepless night, I arrived to Dubai International Airport in one piece. Upon first glance, I couldn’t agree more with Donald Trump’s description from the first US presidential debate – “incredible.”

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Dubai International Airport

But after a much needed trip to the washroom, I think an asterisk belongs next to his description –

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*except some of the stalls don’t have toilet seats

I quickly freshened up, solo-toured the airport, bought a bag of peanuts, then boarded the plane for Accra.

During the sixteen hours of airtime between Cape Town, Dubai, and Accra, I enjoyed a few movies: Invictus, the story South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup; Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest episode of the epic Sci-Fi classic; Finding Nemo, a personal favorite.

Wheels touched ground in Accra. After moving through customs with my carry-ons and necessary documentation, I found myself waiting at the baggage claim. While surveying the area, my eyes became fixed on familiar sight – a Carolina Panthers hat. With a grin, I introduced myself to the boy wearing the black and blue and we visited for the next thirty-some-odd minutes while awaiting our luggage.

Turns out, the friendly sixteen year-old Englishman has family in North Carolina. It was as encouraging as it was unexpected have my first West African interaction hit so close to home. However, the frequency of this American familiarity during my time in Ghana would prove to be few and far between.

After collecting my bags, I walked out into the West African heat for the first time to meet Robin (Right to Dream’s Managing Director) and King (Robin’s assistant and first generation Right to Dream player, who just retired from ten years of professional European football.) Both were very hospitable as we drove off – asking about my Watson Fellowship and stopping by the mall so I could purchase a few essentials before leaving modern civilization.

After a full day of air travel, my attention slowly began to drift from our conversation towards the herds of cow, goat, and chicken parading along the dusty side streets. I was beginning to feel that my Ghanian experience would differ drastically than the one I had in South Africa.

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A herd of cows outside of Accra

After a bumpy two hour ride, we arrived to Right to Dream Academy, the shining oasis adjacent to the village of Old Akrade – with its dirt paths, mud-brick houses, and (much to my suprise) “local Irish Pub.” Upon arriving, I received a short driving tour of both campuses – school and sport.

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Right to Dream Academy – School Campus


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Right to Dream Academy – School Campus (building on left is the school, buildings in back/center are staff housing and the girls’ dorm)


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Right to Dream Academy – Football Campus (8v8 field)


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Right to Dream Academy – Football Campus (me and Isaac on the 11v11 match field)

After a much-desired nap, I went for a drink with King and Ibrahim (the Right to Dream facilities manager) at Fergal’s, the “local Irish Pub,” before spending the night on campus.

Around lunchtime the next day, I returned to Fergal’s for Manchester United versus Manchester City – the most expensive game every played (with player payments amounting to more than 600 million Euros or 660 million US dollars.) I felt great privilege and wonder watching the world’s richest game in possibly the poorest environment I had ever been in.

 

This minor tension was a small taste of the cultural contrast that surrounds my experience as a white male volunteering at one of the world’s most elite football academies in the middle of impoverished rural Ghana. However, these emotions failed to foreshadow how the next ten days would prove to be some the most difficult of my young life.

With school scheduled to begin in two days, there was much to do – I had yet to move into my accommodation, meet the remaining fifty-plus Right to Dream employees and the nearly one-hundred Right to Dream student-athletes, nor learn how to teach math – my primary duty at the academy. The more I thought about my list of things to do, the larger it grew.

That is until a familiar adage, often used by my father, helped narrow my focus:

“How do you eat an elephant?”
– one bite at a time.

First bite: move into my accommodation.

I was told that I would be living in a house that was located a “fun canoe ride” across the Volta River from the academy. Throughout my time in Ghana, I have routinely taken two canoe rides each day, however, thanks to my luggage the first trip would be by car with King and Ibrahim.

img_3977Along the way to my accommodation, we stopped on the side of the road to enjoy my favorite Ghana ‘drive through item:’ soft coconuts.

In rural Ghana, each coconut costs one Cedi (the equivalent of 25 cents.) To eat, right there on the side of the road, the vendor takes a cutlass (more-or-less a machete) and hashes at the coconut, creating a hole in the top through which you can slurp the quenching coconut water. When the juice runs dry, you return the coconut to the vendor who then chops the coconut in half, allowing you to scrape out the edible inside using one of the outer shards.

Absolutely refreshing.

Though similar to dancing in rhythm, the local west Africans were noticeably better at swiftly eating the coconuts; by the time I finished one and a half, King and Ibra had gone through three a piece.

We continued on and reach my accommodation, where for the first time I saw the house and room I would call home for the next three and a half months. Plenty of space, including a decent size bed and two chairs. No issues, I thought.

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My accommodation in Senchi

But as the days progressed, I found that the “fun canoe ride” would represent a divide in two contrasting worlds – both very different from the one I found in Cape Town.

Right to Dream Academy was the purposeful world: offering social connection with colleagues and student-athletes, functioning wifi, fulfilling vocational challenges, consistent running water, and three complementary meals a day.

My accommodation was the isolated world: where I had yet to meet my housemates, had no cellular data or wifi, discovered many issues (including a dysfunctional shower, broken bed frame, zero televisions, dressers, drawers, tables, or desks) and oftentimes struggled to sleep-in thanks to the heat, a noisy fan, and several uncalled-for alarms.

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Broken bed-frame

The alarms included: cross-village “cock-a-doodle-doo” contests inches outside my window; a waste management truck bulldozing through my front yard like a tank from World War II; the local radio blasting through the streets to disperse news to the community’s illiterate; all night Christian funeral parties packing more energy than high school senior prom.

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The neighbor’s chickens five feet from my bedroom window

The contrast was stark, the struggle real. I had never in my life felt purpose and comfort so deeply dependent upon one space. I felt lonely, like Chuck Noland – Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (this comment has little to do with the fact that I haven’t had a hair-cut since July.) But the difficulty didn’t stop there.

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One of the last pictures taken of my original Wildcat Tilley Hat

In addition to the above mentioned, I suffered several cases of “Ghana stomach” (aka: travelers diarrhea,) I lost my Davidson Wildcat Tilly hat, the couch cushions swallowed my trusty Canon point-and-shoot camera along with my pictures, the village power went out for three days, my debit card didn’t appeared to work, the water at the house stopped running for eight days, I felt immensely ill prepared to teach, and my dog died.

Well, not really – I’ve never had a dog.

But what I have had were difficult moments. And through those difficult moments, I have learned about myself, developed new skills, and – something I’m continuing to realize more and more – strengthened relationships with others.

“you’re gonna have difficult moments, and that’s when your real character comes through.”

Life brings challenges. You can either let them linger, fuss, and fold, or work smartly, triumph, and learn. I strove for the latter, and things got better.

I met my roommates – Mohammad, Nora, and Gurleen (Nora’s 5 month old daughter) – and they’re great. I began making use of my time at home by reading, journaling, and watching films on the iPad. My friend Isaac purchased a SIM card for my phone while he visited family in Accra. I bought a new Tilly hat, and found my camera after several anxious days of searching.

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Me and Nora canoe across the Volta River


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Good times with my girl Gurleen


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Mindset by Carol Dweck helps shape the Right to Dream philosophy


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The Alchemist over all-you-can-eat breakfast at Royal Senchi resort


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The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended Edition)


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Davidson Tilley Hat 2.0 (Thanks, Blair)

I spoke to Ibrahim about some of the needs of the house, leading to a functioning shower, dressers in my room, a fixed bed frame, and running water. I figured out my debit card. I swiftly began to recognize the symptoms of “Ghana stomach,” and how to treat them (thanks for the meds, Todd.)

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My bedroom with dressers


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Travelers’ Diarrhea is real

With the help of my fellow teachers, I received much needed education mentorship. In ways both formal and informal, I foraged bonds with co-workers and students, such as during Staff Sports Day (link to Hybrid Video below.) I even (kind of) grew accustom to waking up with the chickens.

Ghana: Right to Dream Staff Sports Day (Hybrid Video)

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Staff Sports Day: I took home gold in the obruni 100 meter sprint


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Matt and Nick invite me for a night out in Atimpoku


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Fafa welcomes me at her Sunday morning church service

Though in the spirit of progress – as one set of challenges starts to wane, new obstacles lift from the horizon. Just as I was getting used to the demands of teaching and gaining excitement for an increased role in football and character development, I was asked to help carry the Right to Dream media load.

Before embarking on my Watson journey, I had very little formal media experience. The pinnacle had to be creating and running the Davidson Men’s Soccer Instagram and Twitter (follow today @DavidsonMSoccer) – in which I basically took a few pictures with my iPhone, found a cool filter, wrote a decent caption, #done.

But what was being asked now was in another league altogether; I was now being asked to capture and edit footage to share with the broader Right to Dream audience, using near-professional equipment.

img_2800So I did what I think any Watson Fellow should do ­– lean in.

The following week was spent engaging in one-on-one photography tutorials with Paa-Joe, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) teacher and supervisor of the Right to Dream Robotics Club. I studied and practiced the rule of thirds and exposure triangle. Then, to hone my videography skills, Paa-Joe sent me to “chase anything that moves” (ie chickens and goats) around the academy.

As the weeks went on, I captured footage for a week-long youth leadership summit and school-wide assemblies. I even designed, scheduled, recorded, and edited multiple interviews of our array academy guests – including Claudio Reyna, consultants from Google, English Premier League Physios, and visitors from Right to Dream’s professional Danish club affiliate, FC Nordsjælland.

My two most recent projects were to produce a tour of the academy for prospective players and families from Côte d’Ivoire (done in French,) and to capture a wonderfully produced theatrical performance of Lord of the Flies.

None of this would be possible without the help of others.

“Football (life) is a team game, and you need a support system around you. You can’t do it by yourself.”

My support system at Right to Dream has been wonderful. Not only have they given me their friendship and mentorship, but just as importantly (and maybe even more so,) they have given me responsibility through which I can grow.

In addition to Paa-Joe’s media mentorship:
– Robin, James, King, Ibrahim, and Atsu have guided my experience for matters related to management and facilities;
– Emma, Bright, Nick, Matt, Fafa, Darteh, Kofi, Joel and the rest of the education staff have offered their friendship and mentorship about how to lead a classroom conducive to learning;
– Paul, Isaac, Keith, Lydia, Harry, Linda, and Addo have allowed me to study and take part in the character development program;
– Frazer, Gareth, Joe, Jeremy, Rich, Shane, Prince, Isaac, and the whole football-physio-recruitment team have openly shared their insights on talent identification, development, and maintenance;
– Chef John, Raymond, Moses and the entire kitchen crew have provided delicious food and friendship throughout my stay.

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All in all, my experience at Right to Dream is as challenging as it is rewarding. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

For the next five weeks, I look forward to continuing to ride the current wave I’m on, while increasing involvement with the football department, traveling to multiple tourist destinations in west Africa, and engaging further in the village community.

Can’t wait to tell you all about it.

I will be in Ghana from now until I travel to England on December 17. I plan to write one more blog posts about my continued adventures in Ghana. Thanks for reading!

Please share or leave a comment!

#kickingallovertheworld

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24 thoughts on “Ghana Half 1: Cultural Contrast, Difficult Moments, and the Help of Others

  1. Alec so proud of your accomplishments while in Ghana. I know this is and has been an awarding experience for you. Miss you and love you.

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  2. Hi Alec, I loved all your pictures and the commentary. Sounds like an incredible journey. I’m looking forward to the next installment. To think I was worried when when Anthony made you ride the Greyhound bus from NYC ❤️ God Bless you, be safe.

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  3. GRAND TO HEAR FROM YOU, ALEC! AMAZING ADVENTURES AND ACHIEVEMENTS–BUT NOBODY IS A BIT SURPRISED! EVEN THE DOG THAT WASN’T OR THE TEE-SHIRT “TRY.” THANK HEAVENS YOU FOUND YOUR CAMERA! HOW ABOUT GETTING A SECOND CAMERA FOR B/W SHOTS/? WE DID THAT IN CHINA AND IT WORKED! (SOMETIMES B/W BETTER, NO?)
    KEEP EM COMING! THANK YOU!!!!!
    CHEERS FROM DAVIDSON, GILL

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  4. What a great capstone of your Davidson College education! In addition to all the cultural experiences, I hope that you are making lifelong friends.

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  5. Oh, what fun! Can’t believe you haven’t gotten a haircut. You’d told me that Right to Dream is amazing…but that won’t do it justice. Still going to Rome for Christmas, or is England your final holiday destination?
    Miss you in Davidson. Had a nice visit with Christine Choi this morning. Your ears should be burnng.
    Love from Missy and me,
    John K

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    • Missy and John,
      The experience continues to be amazing. I’m excited to share more throughout the year and in August.
      Rome it is 🎄
      Glad to hear of your visit with Christine, John.
      Hope the fall is treating you well in NC.
      Love,
      Alec

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  6. All I can say is “wow”! You are so deserving of this Fellowship- couldn’t be a more perfect person to be doing this work. UC and I always knew there was something special about you. Can’t wait to read more. LYMI, Aunt Helen

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  7. Sounds as if you are taking complete advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Great pictures too. We are ready for a first hand report when you visit again. Peter and Vicky

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  8. I finally made time to read your November blog. Thanks for giving us insight into your experiences. So incredibly proud of my faux nephew who is a world away and making a world of difference. Thought of you in church this morning when I rubbed noses to Maria and Molly, who didn’t return the response by the way……. Those girls…..

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    • Great to hear from you! Thanks for reading UC. Those girls… maybe they’ll learn one day. I read the message you wrote me and lol’ed a few times, including a nose rub at the end. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving

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