For McGehee students, service trip to Ghana is an eye-opener

Students from the Louise S. McGehee School saw stark differences in opportunities for girls in other parts of the world when they traveled to Ghana on a service trip recently.

But the students also were surprised by a booming nation where everyone has a cellphone and discovered the best chocolate ice cream they’d ever had.

The weeklong trip over Carnival holidays was inspired by a chance conversation between headmistress Eileen Powers and the owner of a Magazine Street shop that sells textiles from Ghana, which is in West Africa

“I wandered into Baba Blankets and we got to talking,” Powers said. Shop owner Aminada Brown had studied in Ghana and was trying to improve the lives of women there by selling their handmade products and providing scholarships.

Powers brought an idea to her students and faculty at McGehee: Raise money for scholarships and then visit Ghana.

“Two years later it came to fruition,” Powers said.

The students raised $2,500 for scholarships, enough to pay for a year’s tuition for 11 students at a girls’ boarding school in Tamale, Ghana. They also collected hundreds of books to donate.

The girls started at the boarding school, where they were greeted with a lengthy ceremony, speeches, songs, dances and drumming.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the visit to the school,” said Jessica Hernandez, a sophomore. “The girls were really welcoming ... it made me smile.”

Classes were large and lecture-style, and desks were lined up in strict rows, said Sofia Cabrera, a freshman. “They really respected their teachers,” she added, noting that the students stood up when instructors entered and addressed them formally as “master.”

While the building is modern and computers are available, the students walk a quarter-mile every morning to fetch water for cooking, drinking and bathing, carrying buckets balanced on their heads.

Carrying items on their heads is a skill all girls learn in Ghana, and one of the few ways that uneducated women there can earn a living, said Debby Pigman, dean of academics and head of McGehee’s history department, who also went to Ghana.

Most women marry young and assume responsibility for a family early on, so the school in Tamale offers classes in child care and home finance. The American teens were quizzed on their marital status.

“They saw this ring,” said Sally Jane Stern, a freshman, raising one hand, “and they asked me if I was married!”

The students visited an adobe-hut village, where they took refuge from the sun in the cool, traditional houses. They were treated as celebrities.

“There was literally a line of people waiting to take pictures with us,” freshman Mariel Nelson said. When it was time for dinner, the villagers presented the girls with a live rooster, she added.

The group visited the cities of Accra, Cape Coast, Kumasi, Tamale, and Bolgatanga. Peddlers were everywhere along the crowded, fast-moving roads, said Gabbi Szabo, a sophomore. “It kind of put into perspective some of the differences between our country and a Third-World country,” she said.

On one especially memorable day, the group toured the Cape Coast Castle and Dungeon, built in the 1600s, where prisoners awaited shipment to the Americas to be used as slaves. The girls shivered in a pitch-black cell used to confine attempted runaways.

The students were astonished by the delicious food, especially the chocolate ice cream, which they bought in gas stations and devoured by the tub during long drives. They rushed to search Google for Ghanaian ice cream when they returned, but were disappointed to learn that it’s not sold in the United States.

McGehee’s plans a continuing relationship with the boarding school in Tamale, Powers said. She encouraged the girls she met there to stick with their studies.

“We tried to emphasize that the best thing they could do for their future was to stay there,” she said, “finish their education and form the future leadership of the country.”