Intro: And so the adventure begins
My name is Sean Luján and I am in Cape Coast, Ghana for eight weeks! For those that are not the most geographically savvy, Ghana is located in West Africa in between the Ivory Coast and a small country called Togo. The combination of low altitude and proximity to the Equator gives Ghana its nice tropical climate (Cindy hates the humidity).
I’m extremely happy to be here and learn about the Ghanaian culture. From what I have observed, Ghana is saturated with history and tradition. The question I have heard the most besides “Where are you from?” is – “Why Ghana? Why Africa?” And my most honest and simple response – I wanted to be immersed in a culture that was entirely different from my own, and I thought Ghana would be an excellent site to challenge me. And Ghana has not disappointed. By the same token, I find great value in the types of research we get to participate in because of the applications that they have in my future career goals (see below).
I am here with two of my fellow SDSU MHIRT colleagues, Cindy and Fatimata. Our site mentor, Dr. Martin just left us a little over a week ago. She put up with us for as long as she could then she had to fly away. We miss you, Dr. Martin!
The thought of traveling abroad has been with me since I was a little boy. I use to tell my parents, “I’m going to visit this place one day” and they would nod their head and say, “If you really want to do it, you will do it.” And oddly enough, I always said one of my first destinations would be Africa. And I’m ecstatic to be here in Ghana. The pace of life in Ghana is fast, yet incredibly laid back. It is an interesting combination of the two.
So far I have visited Accra (the country’s capital), the Eastern Volta Region (where I went hiking), Kumasi (Ashanti Region Capital) and Cape coast (home). They are all very different from one another. I hope to travel to the northern side of Ghana to explore Mole National park; I’ve been told there is a drastic cultural difference between the North and South. I’m also hoping to see some wildlife there like African elephants, monkeys and hippos because it’s a larger wildlife reserve.
(This is a little long, but bare with me I had to make up for the past four weeks I’ve missed.)
First timer. Ghana or bust!
This happens to be my first time traveling abroad. I think I got my passport in November. I have lived next door to Mexico for 22 years and still have yet to visit. I think all of my SDSU MHIRT colleagues have been abroad, so I guess that just means I have to catch up! Challenge accepted.
On a Sunday morning- sometime late January, I received my acceptance email to the Ghana site and I couldn’t help but jump around, do a victory dance and wake up my roommates (and call my parents) to let them know I had been selected for this fellowship in Africa.
Future participants: If you’re unsure about living abroad, apply. You won’t regret it! While everyone’s experience abroad may be different, like anything else it’s all about perspective and being open to new experiences. The Tayman lab family will take good care of you!
SDSU MHIRT 2016 Squad: maybe a reunion in Mexico? Just in case you didn’t know, we were able to meet each other in San Diego for a pre-departure training in early June. It’s been great to hear that you’re all having a great time at your sites.
I’m feeling like a secret agent pulling out my passport left and right, and there were times when they didn’t need to see it (haha). Cindy didn’t even want to walk by me in the airport. She calls me “the worst.”
We spent about two days traveling altogether. I left New Mexico a day earlier, landed in San Diego, then the next day joined my team at the San Diego airport. We left San Diego Monday morning (6/13) and arrived in Accra Tuesday night.
Everything went relatively smooth. No problems with customs. The London-Heathrow airport was gigantic and the bus drove on the left lane!! Sorry I was little excited about that.
Hopefully our departure will be as smooth as when we arrived. Fingers crossed.
There is one incident that I thought was kind of funny. At the airport in London, a security lady had to pull me aside surprisingly for my DVD case and searched it. She even made fun of me referencing VHS tapes – so are DVDs a thing of the past? In any case it’s been nice to watch The Goonies amongst others after a long day in lab. Or maybe she was laughing at my DVD collection… (Harry Potter series, Step Brothers, Anchorman, LOTR, Avatar, The hobbit, Tomb raider series, Lion King, Lets be cops, The interview, Big Hero 6, ect. she was making fun of my mixtapes).
Research at UCC
We are spending the summer in Dr. Tayman’s natural products research lab at the University of Cape Coast studying medicinal plant chemistry. Specifically, we are extracting, isolating, and with some luck identifying the chemical constituents responsible for the medicinal value of the specific plant we have chosen. The plants we have chosen are native to Ghana.
My goals academically are to learn more about medicinal chemistry, the ideas and scientific reasoning behind traditional medicine and the techniques used to identify the chemical compounds. Additionally, how I as a future health provider can incorporate and offer herbal medicine as an alternative to my patients before turning to synthetic drugs.
Week one was relatively slow in terms of actual lab work. I learned from the other sites that they experienced a similar first week. We read a great deal of literature from Professor Tayman’s collection of books, which are focused on local medicinal plants in Ghana. Interestingly, most of these books have been written by traditional medicine men. Generations after generations of the same families have dedicated their lives to publishing these works. The amount of plants that are of medicinal value and found in these books is overwhelming. It makes me reflect on all the remedies that my mother, father and grandparents put into daily use. It also helps me consider their chemical make up.
I decided on the plant called Ricinus communis. This plant is commonly known as Castor Oil plant and it has medicinal uses in anti-diabetes, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. We have finished the extraction process and are now in the isolation phase. Lab life is starting to pick up, which is a good thing! We are also scheduled to teach or tutor at the nearby school this coming week so that is exciting and nerve wrecking at the same time. I would like to teach math or creative art. I hope to get some volunteer time at the local hospital as well!
Staying connected with the fam bam
I will say that I miss my family a tad, but it helps that we do get to call each other. I’ve been in contact with my mum, pops and sis through an app called “Whatsapp.” I just recently downloaded it before coming. I was using Viber, but it kept malfunctioning so I switched to this one and it works 100% better. It works just as great as a phone as long as you have a Wi-Fi connection (I recommend getting it if you get to come to Ghana or if you have the carrier T-Mobile its free here). The Internet access here has been limited (My Instagram does need some love – follow me! @mijo_seanzi).
P.s If you would like a post card, send me your mailing address 😀
For the first time (from what I understand) we are the first to stay on campus. We aren’t staying in dorms, but at a house that is about a 15-20 minute walk depending how fast you want to walk to lab. The campus itself is pretty big. Our lab is situated on the third floor and you can see the Atlantic Ocean (Gulf of Guinea). Yesterday I set up my hammock out in front of the house for an hour or so and drew. It was nice. I also hand washed my own laundry for the first time. My mother would be proud.
There is a local market across the lab so we can get fresh fruit and veggies. Cindy loves the mangos. Fatimata loves the plantain. And I love both (plus watermelon). Sorry MHIRT, but they don’t issue receipts so that should be interesting for reimbursement. There is also a restaurant I go to everyday for lunch called the SRC canteen. And slowly but surely the waitress is starting to recognize me and smile back ha-ha. Daily food consists of rice (either fried or jollof), plantain, fish or chicken and sometimes-red red, which are beans that are really tasty. On the weekends we’ve been trying to visit local vendors and restaurants. On Ramadan we had the day off so our friend from Spain took us for what he called “the best tilapia in town.” He was he right. So good!
Dr. Martin said I was an adventurous eater, which is pretty accurate. The first night in Accra, Ghana I tried to order Okru soup (a slimy potion) and apparently I didn’t order the right food with it. I said I wanted rice with it not really knowing what that even was and at first the waiter was saying, “no you don’t do that. You need banku.” Okay, give me that. Cindy and Dr. Martin instead recommended the Fried rice for the first night before jumping into the food. What they didn’t know was how much I like food and how much I can eat. Anyways, the next day I ordered the Okru soup and it was interesting. I think it was the cow skin that wasn’t doing it for me. Maybe next time I’ll try to avoid that part of the soup. Actually, I’m not sure if I’ll order it again ha-ha. Maybe. It’s possible.
You know you are in Ghana when…
- “You know you are in Ghana when streetlights are visible decorations by day and invisible shadows by night.” – Damoah
- “You know you are in Ghana when you get off work and you start praying that the water won’t go off before you take a shower.” – me everyday!
- “You know you are in Ghana when you sit down to eat at a restaurant at 12 p.m. noon and the waiter brings your food at 2 p.m., smiling.” – me (better to call first).
- “You know you are in Ghana when a restaurant opens at 9 a.m., but the chef doesn’t come in until 11 a.m. because he decided to go to church.” – me (This happened. haha) #bless
- “You know you are in Ghana when you laugh to prevent you from crying. – Damoah
- You know you are in Ghana when you laugh about serious issues to keep your sanity. – Damoah
***Nana Awere Damoah is the author of a book my dad gave me for my birthday in April for my trip to Ghana. Its called, I Speak of Ghana. It has made me nod my head countless times, and has given me more than a good laugh. As you can see I also came up with some from my own day-to-day Ghanaian experiences.
The scenery has been remarkable once you eliminate the amount of trash, smells and a few other unpleasant sights (which I have adjusted to). Equally, I have had some minor cultural shock in terms of living conditions and lab life, mostly on account of limited resources. For example, not having the cleanest water to wash our glassware in lab or in fact not having all the instrumentation or cleaning supplies we might find normally in a research lab.
I was warned during my interview that we would experience the water shutting off from time to time. We have experienced the water shut off at least every other day for a few hours (sometimes longer). So there are days when we need to get a bucket of water to flush the toilet or we would love a cold shower after work, and instead we wait patiently hoping our deodorant will be enough.
I think overall, the amount of poverty surrounding me on a daily basis is the most overwhelming especially when it comes to seeing children of all ages selling things on the street. I do wish there was something I could do, but perhaps that is for another time. In the meantime, I smile, wave and try to be as friendly as possible to the locals and if I’m lucky enough I get to learn their story.
We have been in Ghana now 25 days and I can happily write I have had no terrible experiences that have made me want to head home. Sorry mom! So far I have had some really great cultural immersion excursions that have made me only want to learn more from the Ghanaian locals. In my future blogs, I’ll share the outcomes, pictures and things I’ve learned. I’ve been trying to write in a journal so I can share my thoughts and reflections with friends and family when I get back home. I think I’ve shared enough for now.
I’ll end with something Mr. Stephen Martin (Dr. Martin’s husband) shared with me, “You may be surprised to learn that less than 3% of Americans have travelled to the African continent. Saying “Yes” to Ghana has earned you Elevated Status.” I’m glad Ghana chose me.
Midasi. (Thanks) for reading!
—Kweku (my Ghanaian name- meaning born on a Wednesday) / — Sean
By the way, (last thing I promise) I forgot to mention I recently graduated (woot, woot) from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) with my bachelors in Biology, Minors in Chemistry and Spanish with my concentration in pre-medicine. I’m taking the year to study for my MCAT exam, work as a medical scribe, volunteer and since I have the travel bug now most likely some more time overseas!!
If you feel like writing or have questions about the Ghana site, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to shoot me an email. Look out for my next post!