This is the final installment of a series of stories written by Kelly Lower and Taylor Yarbrough, research assistants to Dr. Kathleen Ragsdale and Dr. Mary Read-Wahidi of the Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center. As part of SIL’s Socioeconomic and Gender Equity Research (SGER) team, Dr. Ragsdale, Kelly, and Taylor visited the Northern Region of Ghana to conduct the second wave of the Soybean Uptake and Networking Survey (SUNS II) in collaboration with SIL’s in-country partner, Catholic Relief Services/Ghana (CRS). The SGER/CRS team is working in four districts in the Northern Region, Chereponi, Karaga, Saboba, and Tolon. The SGER/CRS team has also begun conducting focus groups centered on gender and land tenure with men and women smallholder farmers in each of the four districts.
Traveling to Ghana was a profound yet humbling experience for me. After seeing many Ghanaians who were street vendors working in the streets of Accra, Tamale, and Yendi, in order to provide for themselves and their families, I found a new respect for life. I began to appreciate all that I have and consider how blessed I was. During this trip, I vowed to no longer take my life for granted or complain about the minute things that I do not have, but to be grateful for the bare necessities.
This trip was also a trip of many ‘firsts’ for me. On this trip, I took my very first flight. At first, flying was very nerve racking and overwhelming, but after eight flights I began to embrace it. By the end of the trip, taking off became my favorite part of flying. This was my first international trip as well. I have traveled to many states in the South, but I have never gone to another country where their culture and customs were so different from my own. I also had my first field work experience in Ghana. I enjoyed visiting the villages and documenting their responses to the land tenure questions we posed during the focus group discussion we conducted with men and women soybean farmers.
While in Ghana, I enjoyed meeting and socializing with new people. Ghanaians are some of the friendliest individuals that I have ever encountered. They are so respectful and polite to everyone that they made this native Mississippian feel right at home. Every person I met greeted me politely in their local language. It was also a pleasure meeting some of the individuals our team works with at the Catholic Relief Services/Ghana (CRS/Ghana). I hope that we will continue working with them in the near future.
My favorite moment throughout the duration of this trip was visiting women at a local cooperative who produce raw shea butter for a local company in Ghana. These women churned and whipped the shea butter by hand, not with a machine. Although this process is actually very hard work, the women were so skilled that it seemed that they whipped the shea effortlessly until it was a smooth paste. Many of the women breastfed their children while working vigorously. I bought shea butter from them and every time I use it, I will be reminded of the beautiful Ghanaian women who made it.
When I agreed to go on this research trip for the Soybean Innovation Lab, I had a lot of expectations of how the trip would impact my life and of the experiences I would have. This trip far exceeded my expectations. Although I dealt with short bouts of homesickness (and a brief bout of the real sickness common to all travelers who have a sudden change in diet), and missing my loved ones, I feel as though I adjusted well to my surroundings. I am so grateful that I was presented with the opportunity to go to Ghana. I look forward to visiting Ghana again as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the world as my career progresses.
Dr. Ragsdale, Taylor and I have been back in Mississippi for almost a week now, and yet the song “Africa” by the American rock band Toto is still on a loop in my head and my daily dose of the anti-malarial Malarone keeps the incredible experience and precious memories of our time in Ghana fresh in my thoughts. Reflecting over our trip, some experiences stand out from the rest, and some everyday truths of our time in Ghana shock me, now that I’ve reacclimated to my daily life in the US.
First of all, I recall with such pleasure the act of watching people go about their lives from the window of the SUV as our team traveled to and from villages. In much of rural Ghana, life seems to happen outdoors with full elemental exposure, and none of the stuffiness associated with our sheltered, confined lives here in the US. Wherever our duties took us in Ghana, we would invariably drive past these ordinary displays of domestic activity. Women pumping away at foot-powered treadle Singer sewing machines, men perched on plastic chairs chatting, children frolicking near the side of the road. It was a much more inviting display than the view from my car traveling down Highway 12 here in Starkville MS, where – in the place of men and women garbed in extraordinary prints carrying on with their chores – there are no less than 10 fast food restaurants within a 2 mile stretch whose drive-thrus are jam packed with cars.
Next, I find myself missing the honest, earthy smell of the air and warm presence of the tropical sun. Rural Ghana and Mississippi have very similar climates in July – as this month falls into Ghana’s rainy season. However, in rural Ghana, almost everything we did was out of doors – a fact that never bothered us, even during the heat of the day, as we quickly acclimated to the local climate. Now that I am back in Mississippi, I find myself hustling from my air conditioned car to the freezing grocery store, and back, reducing my time outdoors as much as possible, lest I be caught standing in the sticky, wet heat that is Mississippi in July.
Finally, and above all else, I miss and reflect on the people I met during our trip. Never have I made the acquaintance of more kindly, warm-hearted people than those I met in Ghana. In particular, the members of the CRS/Ghana team in Tamale with whom we conducted all our research activities, workshops and focus groups alike. Without their help and support, there is no telling what we would have missed out on during our time in Ghana, and I will never forget their generosity and benevolence.