Out of Water
I was already sweating through my blue long-sleeved collar shirt. I tried to contract by abs and back muscles as much as possible to prevent my body from touching the shirt—limit the perspiration it would have to soak up. Too little, too late. My new students could already see the sweat seeping through my shirt. On to the next strategy: own it. “Wow, it’s really warm in here, huh?”
It was my first day of class as a lecturer at Ashesi University in Ghana. In the last week, I brought in the new year (2020) with friends and family, traveled across the world from my parent’s house in Houston to Accra, met countless new faces with new names I was trying to keep straight, and began preparing the syllabi for two Mechanical Engineering classes: Manufacturing Processes and Introduction to Mechatronic Design. That day, I got to the class early. The lecturer cannot be late on his first day. The room—in the recently built Engineering “Fab Lab”—still smelled like freshly-laid cement, which was a bit suffocating. I opened one of the large, 4-panel sliding glass windows on each side of the room to create a cross-breeze. The room was lined with two rows of 5 lab benches, each with 8 lab stools. This type of multi-purpose room was perfect for the Ashesi engineering curriculum which emphasizes hands-on lab instruction with courses that meet for equal time labs and lectures each week.
I was still surprised to be there. The 6-month period since I had accepted the semester-long Archer-Cornfield Teaching Fellowship was not long enough to ease my doubts that I belonged at the front of the class with my own students. I was not qualified for the position and I knew it. I had never taught a course before and my only experience teaching came as a Graduate Student Instructor—a glorified title for “teaching assistant”—the semester before at the University of Michigan (U-M). Regardless of how I felt, I knew I needed to do this. I needed it to test my commitment to living a life in service to others; I needed it to test my commitment to using my education as a tool to impact others; I needed it to test my commitment to a sentiment shared by Fred Swaniker that “those of us with privilege should do hard things.” And, as I came to find out, Ashesi also needed me. Their infant Mechanical Engineering program was struggling to find enough instructors to teach all the courses that students needed to graduate. Hence, their new lecturer would need to teach two senior-level classes. My help would be a much-needed relief to an already strained engineering faculty.
My new students began to file in, and with each person the rub between my palms felt more wet. We spent some class time having each of the 21 students introduce themselves to me. This was the Manufacturing class, taught on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Most of the same students were also in my Mechatronics class (on Tuesday and Thursday), so I would have another opportunity to learn their names tomorrow. There was a twinge of silliness to the introductions—the kind of silliness that comes from re-introducing yourself to all your good friends just to appease the new teacher; the kind of silliness that comes from inside jokes about your name not being what people call you. This silliness would be a constant source of both comfort and concern for me throughout the semester. On one hand, it created a playfulness that allowed us to acknowledge that we were peers and that I could learn as much from them as they could from me. On the other hand, it meant that some students would not treat my course with the seriousness it required at the outset. Naturally, they assumed that the course would not be as difficult as some of their other courses because of my youth. Unfortunately for them, I overcompensated in the other direction. I intended to take full advantage of the time and opportunity to teach as much practical content as I could squeeze in, which would be useful for their budding engineering careers. That would require a deeper level of commitment from them—possibly more than they had grown accustomed to.
A Vision for African Engineering Education
Ashesi, as a well-funded private university, has the financial means to offer an equivalent or superior educational experience to their students compared to their western counterparts, but the infrastructure challenges in Ghana (and in Africa, more broadly) create problems that money cannot solve. For example, it took over two months to get parts delivered to the campus—parts that I planned to use to teach the labs for my classes. This delay meant that we had to push back the labs and opt for tests and quizzes. Due to an unfortunate turn of events, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, we never got to complete the labs and projects I had planned for courses as we moved to online instruction.
The challenge of getting these parts highlights one of the barriers to great engineering education in Africa and was one of the key insights of my time in Ghana. Ashesi University was founded 18 years ago to “advance the quality of African education,” and while they have made significant progress in improving education and outcomes for young people, they, like many others, are missing a critical component in engineering education. In most engineering disciplines, practice is more critical to learning than theory and practice requires physical resources. In turn, physical resources require either manufacturing capability to make engineering components in the country or infrastructure in place to ensure they can be imported. African countries lag most emerging economies in both. Organizations and individuals who invest in education in Africa misplace their investments if it is not coupled with access to the resources that students need to learn. The outcomes we want to see in African engineering education are the second-order effects of robust infrastructure provided by strong government institutions in collaboration with private enterprise. With transportation and communications systems in place, it becomes easier to create a supply chain for goods like engineering materials to get to schools. But without it, the social and financial return on investment in education will suffer.
I began working a project to address this issue. The project can be broadly thought of as finding an answer to the following question: what would it take to get engineering materials to Ashesi (or any other African university) from anywhere in the world in less than a week? My hope is that the solution to this question can be replicated in universities across the continent. A secondary effect of solving this problem will be the infrastructure that is built to support it, which can be mobilized to supply other goods to be brought into the economy to increase productivity in other sectors.
In my experience, these core problems are the hardest to find and solve. They often require an outsider’s perspective coupled with on-the-ground experience. I’m grateful for the experience in Ghana that exposed me to it, and I’m excited for where all the questions will lead me.
A Bit of Relief: New Friends and Elephants
We stepped out of the dimly lit coach bus into the bright of the morning sun after our 6-hour drive from Accra to Kumasi. I felt lucky to have a sleep mask that allowed me to sleep through most of the drive. A swarm of taxi drivers surrounded us immediately, undoubtedly seeing the business opportunity in our group of 8 young travelers. We had to hitch a ride to the Kitase Bus Station, where we entered a much smaller bus to take us further north—the 5 hours from Kumasi to Tamale, our destination. My friend, Stewart, and I were already starting to become jealous of the three other people who purchased the hour-long flight from Accra to Tamale instead. But we told ourselves that it would give us stories to tell in the future. And it did.
We were going to Tamale for a group excursion to visit Mole National Park (pronounced 'Moh-lay'). The trip was organized by a young and vibrant woman named Maajoa. Stewart heard about the trip through a new friend, who heard about the trip through a friend; it seemed like a great opportunity to explore Ghana. Maajoa frequently organizes these types of trips to explore Ghana for groups of strangers in addition to her day job. Our group was a diverse bunch of late twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings with myself and Stewart pulling down the average age at 24 and 25, respectively. Some folks were married, some single; some were Ghanaian, some foreigners.
We got to learn a lot about each other during the 11-hour trip, which was the perfect catalyst to an extraordinary weekend. We ate, drank, and were merry together. It was the prototype of a low-social optionality gathering—getting close to strangers in a short period of time primarily because you have no choice but to do so. I felt like a teenager in a dorm room at the hotel. We all wanted to know what everyone else was doing all the time, not wanting to miss a moment of the fun.
My favorite part of the trip was seeing the elephants! I don’t remember if I saw elephants before, but this was certainly the first time I consciously registered it. The elephants, and all other animals at Mole, were in their natural habitat and often, perhaps begrudgingly, welcomed visitors like us. It was a hot day when we visited so we met them at the lake for an afternoon dip. They were majestic, calm, and exuded an awe that made it impossible to take your eyes off them.
The pandemic, which forced me to return to the US earlier than planned, made the Mole trip my only opportunity to explore of parts of Ghana outside Accra. Stewart and I convened with new friends every weekend in Accra and began planning other trips. Going ATV riding in Berekuso and visiting the historical sites in Cape Coast were among our most ambitious plans. In a way, I’m glad our time was cut short because the dashed plans left a void—one that I have to go back to Ghana to fill.
Nosa Edoimioya (email@example.com) is a PhD student in the Mechanical Engineering program at UM. He recently started a podcast about graduate school and research called “How To Do Grad School” that launches July 16, 2020. Listen on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify.