SPJ Reading Room
My Journey to Ghana
By Bonnie Newman Davis
Associate Professor, School of Mass Communications, Virginia Commonwealth University
Shortly after Christmas, I went to Ghana to write about an agricultural compact between the United States and the West African nation. I returned two weeks later with enough ideas, images and notes to write a book.
I saw black Africans, whose skin tones ranged from the deepest ebony to honeycombed hues, running things and taking care of business. I heard dozens of languages that frequently forced me into silence. I ate spicy chicken, rice, beans and plantains, my preference over starchy Ghanaian staples such as fufu or banku. I smiled at young people who posed for my camera with shyness or swagger. I danced to music that competed with honking horns from thousands of vehicles. I saw people everywhere who seem to sell everything.
I experienced incredible joy in being a place where the word “Akwaaba” which means “welcome” is genuine. I felt indescribable pain in seeing so many children mired in poverty, hunger and sickness.
Two weeks in Ghana isn’t enough time to inhale all the sights, sounds and smells that surround this country of 21 million people. But those 14 days in Accra, Ghana’s capital, proved long enough to give me a greater appreciation for reporting on American shores, a job made less tedious by instant Internet connections and the ability to easily communicate with sources.
Internet access and cafes are plentiful in many parts of Ghana, but making connections can be excruciatingly slow (and expensive if you rely on a hotel business office.) And, while people are generally friendly and willing to talk to the media, language barriers and heavy accents can cause messy mix-ups. (Although English is the official language, many Ghanaians still speak in their ancestral tongues which have dozens of dialects.)
An example of miscommunications occurred while I was en route to an interview with a media executive at a local hotel. Recalling what the executive had said, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the “African Radiant Hotel” near the airport. The driver appeared to know where to go, but after a 15-minute drive turned into 30 minutes, it became apparent that we were lost. Finally the driver telephoned a friend, who determined that we probably were searching for the African Regent hotel.
Isn’t that what I said?
Rather than stress out about such mishaps, I saw them as valuable lessons. (Luckily, I’d set out early for the interview, and the executive, a confidante of Ghana’s president, was running late).
Technology and language barriers aside, I gained respect for the ability and agility that reporting abroad demands. Many of the reporting techniques and strategies I used in Ghana reflect those I’ve adhered to during my combined 30 years of reporting, editing and teaching journalism.
Be willing to step outside of yourself and view situations through unfiltered lens. Toss the biases and stereotypes. Seek truth, accuracy and as many voices as possible. Be patient, but persistent. (I visited one establishment three times before the owner talked to me.) Be polite, even when bureaucracy gets in the way of a great interview. Ask permission to take photographs. (I took more than 400 pictures and shot about three hours worth of video footage). Listen and learn. Smile and say “thank you.”
My traveling companions, mostly college students, appeared baffled yet impressed by the dozens of contacts and interviews I’d made and scheduled before and after arriving in Ghana.
“It’s what journalists do,” I told them. “It’s in our DNA.”
I traveled to Accra as an Ethel Payne Fellow, awarded by the National Association of Black Journalists. Payne (1911-1991) was a pioneering black journalist who covered seven U.S. presidents and was a war correspondent for The Chicago Defender. Payne's work in Africa as a foreign correspondent prompted NABJ to create the fellowships.
The fellowship enabled me to experience a land I’d only gleaned from the media and snippets of conversations from acquaintances who have traveled the continent. Although I have traveled many parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean, Ghana marked my first opportunity to visit Africa, frequently referred to as the “Motherland” by American blacks whose ancestors originated on its shores. I arrived in Ghana the same year in which it celebrated its 50th year of independence from British rule. Remnants of the year-long celebration are still evident on billboards, T-shirts and trains.
My primary reason for visiting Ghana was to report on the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s five-year, $547 million compact with Ghana. MCC, an independent U.S. Government agency, was established in Congress four years ago to reduce global poverty through “sustainable economic growth.” Agriculture accounts for 40 percent of Ghana’s gross domestic product and employs between 60 and 70 percent of its labor force.
Ghana is among several developing countries in which MCC has compacts. MCC officials say the program seeks to help rural families increase their income through a complex, three-part program that will increase production of food crops, improve transportation services, and improve water, sanitation, educational and vocational facilities.
The program intrigued me for several reasons. I wanted to see firsthand where and how our tax dollars will be used. I also have a keen interest in economy, business and education, and the MCC program appears to combine all those elements. In addition, I was born in rural North Carolina near tobacco fields, so focusing on farming and agriculture was a natural for me. How effective the compact will be long-term remains to be seen.
I met with MCC officials, Pamela Bridgewater, the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, and two groups of farmers that are participating in the compact. Their most memorable words to me were (through a translator) that they are glad to know the American media are interested in their stories.
If successful, the compact should shed more light on a country and continent still shrouded in stereotypic images of jungles, crime, hunger, tribal wars and AIDS.
While Africa’s struggles with poverty, education and AIDS are staggering, some of the scenes I witnessed such as sick, malnourished children and slums also are abundant in the United States. In fact, one area of Accra appears eerily similar to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A funny thing happened on my way to and while in Ghana. I discovered that my journey wouldn’t be complete without chronicling at least some of the other stories I encountered. One such story has simmered for several years right under my nose at Virginia Commonwealth University where I am an associate professor of journalism.
While I was teaching an ethics course last year, one of my students asked if she could show the class a brief video promoting an upcoming event on campus. “Sure,” I replied. I absentmindedly asked about the nature of the video.
“It’s about a benefit for a school in Ghana,” she said.
“Ghana!” I said, my head jerking to full attention. “I’m going to Ghana!”
My excitement ignited because I had yet to complete plans for my upcoming trip and the deadline loomed. Plans to travel in early 2007 didn’t pan out. So when my student further explained that students from VCU’s School of Social Work were helping to build a child-care center near Accra, I was elated. I quickly gathered more details, e-mailed the school’s field director, Randi Buerlein.
Randi shared details about the benefit for Sovereign Global Mission, a Ghana-based organization run by the Rev. Eric Annan and his wife, Felicia. In addition to the school, the Annans administer a feeding program for orphaned and/or homeless children in Accra.
Long story short: Randi invited me to travel with the social work students to Ghana.
(An article about the students’ journey, which ran in Feb. 3 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, can be found here.)
Once in Ghana, other stories ideas sprouted. So, in addition to the MCC and SGM articles, I’ll also write about black American expatriates in Ghana, along with a look at Global Media Alliance, an International Media Company that specializes in Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Event Management and Media Relations.
Once those articles are written, I’ll start on that book.
— About one-third of Ghana’s 22.1 million people live in poverty, compared to 12.3 million people who live in poverty in the U.S.;
— In Ghana, the average annual income per person is $450 per year, according to UNICEF. The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures show the median household income in the U.S. reached $48,200 between 2005-06;
— Of the 90 out of 100 children in Ghana who enter grade school, only 67 complete sixth grade, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Only seven of those completing primary school will have the reading comprehension of a sixth grader, USAID also states.