Whenever he thinks of Tamale, Dexter Mahaffey ’89 thinks of his longtime friend Haroon Mohammed, the current president of Sister Cities of Tamale. “I’ve never been to Tamale when I haven’t been a guest of Haroon in his house for a meal of yam fufu and guinea fowl, conversation, and tea,” Dexter said. “He is a man of proverbs, the quintessential host, and a true friend, one who always reminds me, whenever I inquire about returning to Tamale, that it is my second home and I needn’t ask.”
That feeling of welcome and acceptance is echoed by everyone who’s been to Tamale. “You’re really loved there,” said Mary Clay ’06. “People who’ve never met you will come running up to you and give you a huge hug. At the airport, this little woman named Fati came up to me — she’s maybe four and half feet tall — and just picked me up.”
“Ghanaians are the kindest people I’ve ever met,” agreed Hayden Dry ’09. “They’re amazing.” During one of Hayden’s stays in Tamale, she lived with an older woman named Agnes Nandzo. “The first time we met Agnes, she said, ‘You can call me mom. While you’re here, I’m your mom and this is your home too.’ She gave us a room, fed us all our meals, took us to soccer games and the hair salon she owned, introduced us to all her friends.”
For Dexter, this connection is the reason these trips have made such an impression on those who’ve gone. “Our students come away with this unbelievable sense of warmth and friendship. They come away feeling that they have friends there now.”
Dexter probably knows Tamale better than anyone at KCD, and he’s been guiding the KCD-Tamale relationship since the beginning. Dexter started by building a partnership with Sister Cities of Louisville, and he made the first trip to Ghana in 2007. He came back to KCD committed to starting an exchange.
The first KCD delegation went to Tamale in March of 2008, and KCD received our first guest from Ghana in the fall of 2009, when we welcomed Tamale Mayor Alhaji Abdulai Haruna to campus.
KCD has sent a group to Tamale every year since 2008, and the experience is eye-opening for students and teachers alike. According to Dexter, the trip “overturns so many of the classic western prejudices about Africa: that it’s a big mess, that it’s dangerous, that it’s backwards. That gets completely unwired, because it doesn’t jive with your experience there. It starts from the moment you land. There are skyscrapers everywhere, and there’s a brand new ten-story glass and steel mall at the airport. Ghana is growing, and Tamale is the fastest growing city in West Africa.”
At the same time, traveling to Tamale means getting along without some of the conveniences we’re used to. “A lot of things we take for granted are luxuries there,” Dexter explained. “I’m not just talking about things like iPhones, but things like pavement or purified water. It takes our students a bit outside of their comfort zone.”
Once you look past those surface differences, however, you begin to see something more meaningful. “When Ghanaians do anything, they put their entire selves into it,” observed Mary. “If
you see someone selling something on the street, they’re proud of their product. If you go to the school, the teachers are driven to come up with a great lesson plan and to use what are usually very limited resources to the best of their ability. They’re driven, but also fully content. They’re happy with what they have and motivated to do their best with that.”
“Based on what you see on TV, you might expect Ghanaians to be in crisis,” Dexter said, “but they’re not in crisis. They’re busy doing the same things everyone else is doing: parents are figuring out how to get their kids to do their homework, figuring out what’s for dinner.”
Over the years, the KCD community has rallied around projects that benefit our friends in Tamale. From outfitting the TISSEC computer lab in 2008 to the Big Box Project in 2011 to the ongoing Ghana Water Project, KCD has come together to share some of the material things that we take for granted. All these things have made a difference for many people in Tamale, but according to Mary, “They’re more excited about the personal exchange and the opportunity to get to know people. They’re clearly grateful for what we do, but they get along just fine without any of the stuff we bring. They’re grateful for that stuff, but they’re more grateful that we come to see them and that we care enough to get to know them.”
Among those who’ve traveled to Ghana, there is a feeling that they’ve taken away as much as they’ve given. “Every relationship is a give and take,” said Dexter. “You give this, but you also take something away. The ideal is a kind of mutuality in which we both learn from each other.”
For Hayden Dry, her trip to Ghana had a lasting impact. Hayden was part of KCD’s first trip to Ghana in 2008. She returned to Tamale in early 2009 and again in the summer of 2010 for an internship with Sister Cities. For six weeks, she taught first grade at Dahin Sheli Primary School.
“Going there was a very eye-opening experience,” she recalled. “It was so different than anything I had ever done before. I learned what mattered to me and what I wanted to do.” Hayden is now teaching kindergarten for Teach for America in a struggling urban school in St. Louis. “Going to Ghana was a big part of the reason why I went into education,” she said.
Perhaps the most important thing that comes from this exchange is the realization that our similarities outweigh our differences. “There are so many things that are universal,” said Mary. “A crying two-year-old—that’s universal. A moody fourteen-year-old — that’s universal. Dancing is fun. Smiles are contagious.
“I remember on the bus going to Mole National Park, our kids and the TISSEC kids took turns singing their national anthems, then the songs they knew when they were kids. It was a really great moment — to realize that our anthems may be different, but we both have one. Our Goodnight Moon stories may be different, but everybody has them.”
“We are both abstractions for each other, up until the moment that we meet each other and get to know each other,” said Dexter. “It’s what happens when you stop thinking about ‘Africans’ and start thinking about Haroon, or Fati. It’s what happens when they stop thinking about ‘Americans’ and start thinking about Jeff or Sarah.
“Even for a second grader who may never go to Ghana, they’ll remember Abdulai, the teacher who everybody loved, or they’ll remember Marwa and Sarafin, who read to them. On a very basic level, this is why we do international exchange.”