A Ghana VSL Program: Going around the globe with Amizade

by Torey Siebart

Screenshot one zoom with the group.

In addition to being the Outreach Assistant for Amizade, I am the site liaison to Ghana. In this blog, I reflect on the recent Amizade virtual program I ran with teens in Liati, Accra, and Akuse, Ghana and speak to how the group was so receptive to learning about new cultures and so open about sharing theirs! 

Throughout the month of November, Amizade ran a global engagement VSL program with 16 teens in Ghana. The students are all members of a new partner organization to Amizade, called Welfare of Children and Youth Association (WCYA). During this virtual experience, the group got their virtual passports stamped in Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador, Italy, and the U.S.! 

The program started out with a deep exploration into culture—what it is and how it might manifest itself. The students were introduced to the cultural iceberg theory and asked to fill in their own icebergs as it relates to culture in Ghana. When asked what would be at the top of their cultural iceberg, or explicit manifestations of culture, the group agreed it would be their clothing, flag, food, the Twi language, and that people are hospitable and open to strangers. These are things easily observable to a visitor embarking on a week’s vacation. When asked what would be on the iceberg below the surface, or implicit manifestations of culture, they gave fantastic examples. They included that you must bow before greeting the chief, that fishermen don’t go fishing on Tuesdays in Accra, as well as different communication styles and rules—that you don’t use your left hand to take from nor give to others. These are parts of culture that would be harder to see during a week-long vacation. 

After that exploration, it was time to travel. The first stop: Cochabamba, Bolivia! Jean Carla welcomed the group to her country and shared many fascinating facts, including that Bolivia has over 400 different types of potatoes, recognizes 37 official languages, and is home to the Sun Gate in La Paz. Immediately, the cohort’s curiosities were piqued and the questions began flowing. They also found similarities between Bolivia and Ghana—first with their nations’ flags and then with city names, like La Paz. 

The second stop was Trinidad and Tobago! We embarked on a musical journey, learning from Denise and her son, Samuel, about all of the icons and influences that helped shape Trinbagonian’s unique music. The students were captivated by the steelpan and all of us found it hard to fight the urge to dance. That wasn’t an issue, however, as Denise had the brilliant idea to end the session with a dance competition! While everyone’s moves were spectacular, there was one clear winner, who won a free panyard tour whenever he visits Trinidad. 

A video of a steelpan being played is on the screen. In the chat, students are asking questions and making comments about the steelpan.
The group learning about Trinidad and Tobago’s steelpan with Samuel and Denise

Our third destination took us to meet Brandon and Bibi in the lush forest of Ecuador! It was a very interactive session with many fun and fascinating questions for the group to answer. We learned so much about Ecuadorian history, culture, and landscape: from its pink river dolphins, to the Pachamama, to their constitution protecting the rights of nature. The cohort found many similarities to Bolivia’s physical geography and revisited the cultural iceberg.

The group thanking Brandon and Bibi after their Ecuador presentation

Visiting Juri in Northern Italy was our fourth stop! Juri began by asking about the first things that come to mind when the student thinks about Italy. The students shared things like pizza, pasta, the Pope, etc. The group later reflected that these would be things above the surface on Italy’s cultural iceberg. We then learned that Italy is the most biodiverse country in Europe, and that food and mealtime is highly valued—people tend to wait for others to get home before eating. 

The last stop, and a very fitting one to round out the experience, was Uniontown, Pennsylvania! Since the group had welcomed me into their culture on day one, I was more than happy to return the favor and tell them about where I grew up. We talked about the area’s history as well as the physical geography and we visited Ohiopyle, Laurel Caverns, and Fallingwater. 

Torey, as a child, behind Cucumber Falls
When talking about our local state park, Ohiopyle, I shared this photo of me as a child behind Cucumber Falls.

The greatest part wasn’t just about learning new cultures, but doing reflection activities together and getting to know ourselves and each other better. After each session with a community partner, I had about an hour to lead reflection to try to drive home some of the learning. We did activities on cultural humility, identity mapping, stereotypes and their consequences, as well as elevator conversations to help them better summarize this experience.

A few students shared their takeaways from the program in the chat. One student remarked “I have learnt a lot about others’ culture and [this] has taught me how to treat, talk, and live with others,” while another said “From the beginning, I thought it wouldn’t be interesting since it’s virtual…But to my amazement, it turned around. It was very interesting!”

“I have learnt a lot about others’ culture and [this] has taught me how to treat,  talk,  and live with others”

For me personally, this experience was very insightful and so fun! I’m very grateful to Serge, one of our Site Directors in Ghana, for helping run this program and to Martin, the Executive Director at Welfare of Children and Youth Association (WCYA), for selecting such a great group of curious students. Lastly, I’m grateful for the students, who cultivated such a positive and fun virtual space, and for our awesome community partners and their willingness to share their culture with folks from far and near!