Summer is a time where students are finally able to be at home with family and friends. But for six Manhattan College students, that welcoming “home” environment was almost 5,000 miles away.
“In a country where we have everything, and even though their standard of living is lower, they’re just so happy with what they have and with each other,” said Mattison Thrall, one of the students to attend the trip.
Under the instruction of associate religious studies professor Jawanza Clark, Ph.D., these students immersed themselves into a culture of hospitality and tolerance while studying abroad in Ghana from May 30 to June 13.
For two weeks, these students not only learned about African Christianity in a classroom-based religion course, but they also had the opportunity to experience the rich history of the country through exploration and conversation with its people.
“We were examining how colonial Christianity or missionary Christianity has impacted the culture,” Clark said. “The point was to examine the impact that European Christianity had on how the people themselves view not just Christianity but their own traditions. There’s this long legacy of Christianity holding a judgement on traditional African religions, viewing them as savagery, as inferior, as heathen religions, as pagan and all of those negative terms, and so really what the course is trying to do is to reconcile that history.”
The students ventured from Accra, the capital of Ghana, to Cape Coast and finally to Kumasi.
Jon Graham, class of 2020, said that the submersion into the culture was a key element of the trip as a whole.
“Most of the learning was visiting museums or historical sites or other experiences, and our teacher would really go into depth on the significance of where we were and how that pertained to the class. It was really about listening and taking it in,” he said.
In addition to learning about the historical elements of Ghana and African Christianity, the students found the personal connections to be the most memorable. Some of these connections began while the students attended a service at the Etherean Mission Church in Accra.
Mattison Thrall, class of 2019, found that the hospitality of the Ghanaians posed as a learning experience.
“In regards to the actual study away I think going to the church and being involved in their service was the best thing that he could have done for us to learn,” she said. “We were just immersed in their culture and they were all so friendly and it was so different than any type of service that I’ve ever gone to and it made it that much cooler.”
Graham agreed with Thrall’s sentiments, stating that the most memorable aspects of the trip was the country’s welcoming arms and hospitable nature.
“I thought the church was my favorite part as well. It wasn’t even just about the spirituality, it was more that you could see the huge community of people that cared for each other and welcomed us too. When we went there, they took time to have us all come up and introduce ourselves. We got hugged a lot,” he said.
As the hospitality amazed the students, the tolerance amongst the Ghanaians was a refreshing takeaway for the MC students as well.
Jalah Jarvis, class of 2020, found the religious tolerance particularly interesting.
“The most memorable part for me was learning about their religious tolerance. There’s a lot of Muslim people who live in Ghana as well as Christians,” Jarvis said. “So like in America, especially after 9/11, we have a lot of people who are not too kind to the Muslims. But there, it’s not a problem being Muslim or Christian or having other indigenous African traditions. No one is really going to bother you about it.”
Thrall compared the open nature of Ghana to the experience of living in New York City.
“They’re just very tolerant of everything it seems, skin color being another thing. Living in New York City, people are very tolerant but then there’s also people who aren’t tolerant at all. But in Ghana, I did not see a distinction between tolerance and intolerance. Everyone was just open arms, praising their Lord, and they don’t care if your Lord is different from theirs,” Thrall said.
While studying abroad in Africa can seem intimidating, largely due to assumptions that Westerners make about the continent, Clark argues that it is worthwhile.
“Well I think that study abroad is important for all students period. To get outside of America and to challenge some of the assumptions we have of the rest of the world, which we tend not to know much about, we just make assumptions about. So part of it is to get abroad and to see what life is like outside of specifically the West…this is the one trip that goes to Africa, and it’s a disorienting experience for the students, but it’s a way to help challenge some of their assumptions about westernization and about what it means to be western. And it also helps to challenge some of their cultural superiority. When we get there, there are assumptions that these are poor, impoverished people. And they are, to some extent, but they also have a lot to offer westerners. It’s not a missionary trip, it’s not going to offer aid to them. As we share what it is to be American, they’re informing us on what it means to be African,” said Clark.
With the last two trips to Ghana being highly successful, Clark has greater plans for the future in Africa.
“The plan is to go to South Africa next, eventually to Kenya so we can visit east Africa, and then continue this on a rotational basis,” Clark said.