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Pieces of Eight

During an ECU study abroad trip to Ghana, ECU history professor David Dennard, center, and ECU student Ina Johnson, left, try on colorful Kente cloth while a local vendor works hard to make a sale. (Contributed photos)

Faculty, Students 'Reverse Sail' in African Study Abroad

By Christine Neff

In West Africa, the Sankofa bird – a mythical creature that flies forward while looking backward – teaches that we must go back to our roots to move ahead.

It’s an appropriate symbol for a study abroad trip taken by East Carolina University faculty and students this summer. The group traveled to Ghana as part of an intensive study of Africans in the diaspora with an emphasis on the transatlantic voyage from West Africa to the Americas.

David Dennard, history professor and director of ECU’s African and African American Studies program, and Kenneth Wilburn, director of undergraduate studies for the ECU Department of History, led the two-week trip this July.

Dennard referred to it as “reversing sail,” returning to African roots in order to better understand the African American experience. “We can return,” he said, “but we’re returning as different subjects.”

ECU travelers to Ghana enjoyed warm hospitality from the people. Above, a Ghanaian grandmother and child pose for a quick photograph.

Six students (both undergraduate and graduate) embarked on the journey that proved to be life changing. They were accompanied by Mary Jackson, director of ECU’s Carolyn Freeze Baynes Institute for Social Justice.

Before landing in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, the students read books and discussed the history of West Africa and the legacy of the slave trade.

In Ghana, they visited museums, markets, cities and villages. They took part in a village festival, bought sweet pineapples on the roadside, five for a dollar, and saw craftsmen create Kente cloth, woodcarvings, pottery and more.

The pinnacle of the trip was when the group retraced the final journey of African slaves bound for America. They visited Assin Manso, a former slave market, and toured “castles” where slaves were held before being loaded on ships to cross the Atlantic.

The experience proved to be an emotional one. “Just seeing that major edifice,” Dennard said, shaking his head at the magnitude of the encounter.

He described the heavy stones used to construct the building, the iron bars over the windows and the “Door of No Return.” “You placed your hands on the wall, and it was eerie to think about the number of folks that were in these places, living in a dungeon before being placed in the belly of a ship to be brought to America,” he said.

Wilburn described the “unreal experience” of seeing a place of “very deep cruelty” in a place of beauty. “On one side, you’re on the beach looking through tropical trees and seeing this beautiful edifice on the side of a peninsula,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling how you can have such a contrast in the same place.”

In lighter moments, the ECU group saw a different type of juxtaposition – that of the old world meeting a new one. While Ghana has a stable government and more developed economy than some of its neighbors, the old world still exists.

“You may find a guy with a herd of goats or cattle using a cell phone, a group of chickens walking under a Mercedes Benz,” Dennard said.

What also stood out was the hospitality of the people. “Hospitality is the religion of the Ghanaians. They are so warm and friendly,” he said.

Ghanaians Ekua Mensah and her husband Thad Ulzen, a former ECU faculty member, assisted the travelers, many of whom were on their first international trip. “They are profoundly changed,” Wilburn said of the students.

For Wilburn and Dennard, that response justified the many hours – and headaches – they invested in planning the trip.

“And that’s why we take on this project, as really a labor of love,” Dennard said.

ECU’s Division of Student Affairs provided financial support, as did the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center, the Carolyn Freeze Baynes Institute for Social Justice, the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, the Division of Academic Affairs and the Department of History.

This page originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at