Ghana’s Slave Dungeons Illuminate Experience for Governors State Students
From the bright smiles of children to the unimaginable darkness of a dungeon where slaves spent their last days in Africa, students at Governors State University experienced 10 life-changing days this spring on a service learning program to Ghana. Led by Senior Lecturer Phyllis West and Associate Professor Nicole Koonce, the service abroad experience arranged by Global Health Brigades gave 12 students a chance to roll up their sleeves to build plumbing systems, linger at historical sites, and connect with local residents and artisans— including some who spoke no English. Three students share their impressions and thoughts.
Lurenzo Carr of Park Forest, graduate student, School Psychology:
‘The kids loved me instantly.’
“The slave dungeons were really dark. When you get there, that’s the vibe you get, even though it’s mid-day. The dungeon was pitch dark. You look around and imagine 200 to 400 people in these cramped spaces with no light, no exit. It put into perspective the things we complain about.
“For community work, we built a biodigester, which is the first stage of plumbing for toilets, for a woman in this town of about 3,300 people. She was taking care of other people’s kids, so there were a lot of people in and out of her household, which is why she was getting one.
“Our work group was really well received, especially by children. They were really interested in me because they were used to black people and white people. They’d say, ‘You’re not from here! You’re a shade we’ve never seen!’ They’d rub my skin, see if it felt different. The kids loved me instantly. And it was beautiful seeing black people in harmony rather than in conflict. There wasn’t competition, there was cohesion.
“The most challenging thing for me was getting ready to immerse myself in a group where already knew each other from a trip to Panama. I was worried I couldn’t connect, couldn’t vibe, but I found my niche. And now I know I’d definitely like to travel more.”
Amber Wood of Bourbonnais, senior, Social Work:
‘We’re still part of the people who are upstairs.’
“The slave dungeon was bleak and gross. The rest of the castle was beautiful. Upstairs, the mayor lived. They had a school and a church. People had parties there. It’s a direct reflection of where we are today, content with people who are miserable living right next to us. I’m grappling with my place in this issue as a white person. We’re still part of the people who are upstairs.
“For the biodigester, we dug a hole and made cement to hold the bricks together. What I loved about working on this is that it was through Global Health Brigades so you collaborate with community members and avoid the savior complex. As a social worker, that’ll be super beneficial.
“We did a lot of work in advance, listening to about 15 podcasts on race and culture, which really helped. The people from Ghana who we worked with told us at the end of the trip that we were one of the most culturally competent groups they’d ever worked with. At first I thought, that’s awesome! But then I thought, what does that mean about everyone else who’s been here? We were just treating people like basic humans.”
Dawn Harrison of Monee, senior, Social Work:
‘We were there to empower them, but they empowered us.’
“I needed to go. To have your feet on the ground where your ancestors walked .... wow. To walk through the Last Bath, which was the river they walked through, and to see the Door of No Return at the slave dungeons, which they called castles. But they’re not castles if there are slaves there. I was a ball of emotions. How do you process a raw emotional journey? I’m still processing.
“We worked with local artisans who showed us how to lay bricks for the biodigesters. One day, I stacked bricks with a little boy from the community. What we were helping to build would replace what they had, which was one concrete building with seven toilets for men and seven toilets for women. We live in excess. They use everything, even the top of a water bottle, even the rainwater. And they were happy! We were there to empower them, but they empowered us.
“These people in Ghana had never seen a predominantly African-American group. We’d go into a classroom and the kids would come up and embrace us. I’ve never gone somewhere where you feel unconditional love and appreciation.
“They know who they are and from whence they come. We had to be taught. I think that’s the biggest difference.”