As we bumped away down the red clay road, the children of Offuman village ran alongside the bus, shouting and waving us off. It was impossible not to be struck by the emotional intensity of the moment, having shared the lives of these beautiful people and knowing this was the final goodbye. The opportunity to work with the communities we are designing for has been an incredible part of IDDS Ghana and has visibly leant a richness to the prototypes that are now emerging from each of the 12 project teams. The IDDS organizers established relationships with 10 villages around Ghana, ranging in size from 100 to 8000 people, and we made three separate visits to the villages most appropriate for our projects.
It amazed me how many deep connections were made in only 9 days spread over the month of working with the villagers. Prior to the first visit, we had received a crash course in Ghanaian culture, which had left my mind swirling with information and nervous excitement. Between the proper greeting protocol, Twi phrases, and social expectations of a woman, I was sure I would commit some sort of egregious error. The first thing we did when we arrived at Offuman was to formally greet the Chief and elders of the community. They sat around the edge of the Chief's courtyard, all wearing gorgeous black and red robes (the colors of mourning - someone had recently passed away) and clasping a handkerchief and cell phone in their hands. Before any verbal introductions could begin, each party had to stand up and greet the other by shaking hands from right to left. Then a bottle of Schnapps was presented to us as the traditional welcoming gift - a symbolic gesture that stayed at the Chief's palace for future guests. We introduced ourselves one by one, and my attempt to use the few Twi phrases I had learned (Me din de Tess; Mefiri America. My name is Tess; I'm from the U.S.) was surprisingly greeted with wide smiles and clapping. It was apparent that they greatly appreciated our efforts to learn their language and understand their lives, and in return we received generous help and advice from many people.
By the end of our third visit, I had met and worked with a cobbler, an aluminum caster, seamstresses, and farmers. I had tried my hand at pounding fufu (the starchy mass made of cassava, eaten at almost every meal), shucking maize, balancing a basin on my head, and then joining in with the good humored chuckling and thigh slapping of amused onlookers. I had stayed up late into the starry night, talking to my host mother and sisters about the differences between Ghanaian and American culture. And I had received a Ghanaian name: Abena Sewaa, with Abena being the name of a Tuesday-born child and Sewaa the surname of my host family. It was a very touching gesture that illustrated the trust and acceptance Ghanaian people offer once they understand your desire to connect with them. And that initial connection need be nothing more than a simple "Ma akwye" (Good morning). Guarded expressions quickly leap into a grin, and the response may vary from "Ete sen?" (How are you?) to "I like you - will you be my friend?" to "Are you married?" Friends are made very quickly in Ghana if you open your heart to these people.
Our many and diverse interactions enabled us to truly understand the design challenges we are working on. Between the first and third visits, we went from only a basic sense of the project to working prototypes we were able to show and use with the villagers. In the case of my project, we began with the extremely broad goal of 'turning plastic waste into products appropriate and useful to rural villages' and ended with a waste plastic sheet-making machine and an extensive line of plastic products. It was an exciting and rewarding experience to see the many ideas and insightful pieces of advice come together into a tangible prototype.
Now we are preparing for our final presentations, which will take place at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) where we have been staying in between village visits and working on our projects. So we are racing to the finish, working late into the nights on our prototypes and posters and reports. Since this entry is already rather long, I will save the details of my project and final prototype for an entry in the near future. This last week will certainly be filled with more moments that blur the vision and tighten the chest with emotion, but the myriad connections made here promise to extend into the future and offer more opportunities to teach and be taught.