Community as Classroom: Urban Studies and Service Learning in Cape Coast Ghana

March 06, 2008
March 6, 2008 — A recent trip to the Ghanaian city of Cape Coast provided 16 University of Virginia students with an opportunity to work with community members on economic development projects aimed at introducing tourists -- drawn to the city by its historic slave castle and forts -- to some lesser-known attractions associated with its multifaceted history and culture.

The trip was part of a January-Term course, "Community as Classroom: Urban Studies and Service Learning in Cape Coast, Ghana."  The academic leaders — Maurice Cox, associate professor of architecture; Scot French, associate professor of history and director of U.Va.'s Virginia Center for Digital History; and independent scholar Gina Haney, a 1997 architectural history alumna who has worked on conservation and tourism development projects in Cape Coast for more than a decade — sought to create a program that would allow for the sharing of ideas and experiences across traditional boundaries.

• AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Scot French describes the J-Term course.

The class, for example, attracted students who might not normally work together on community-based research projects. The students came from the Architecture, Engineering and McIntire schools, as well as from history and African-American studies, and brought a variety of skills to the projects. In turn, they learned how to build conservation efforts from the grassroots up.

"In partnering with Cape Coast residents and local officials, the students addressed the needs of an economically marginalized community while learning firsthand about the history and culture of the region," French said. "The residents and community leaders served, in turn, as teachers, interpreters and local guides. In working together on these projects, we shared a common goal of promoting economic development through heritage tourism."

Upon arrival, the students quickly rolled up their sleeves to tackle real-world problems. They partnered with Cape Coast residents and local officials on three projects drawn from the city's community-based Conservation and Tourism Development Plan.

"The depth of learning that goes on when students are immersed in a rich, yet foreign, cultural context like Ghanaian society, is like none other," Cox said. "Being so different from their own, it challenges their every preconception about learning — from what and who becomes the teacher, to why and how to listen for culturally relevant clues spoken by ordinary residents. To then be asked to apply those lessons learned immediately, in ways that enrich the host community, makes for an extraordinary learning experience."

Third-year McIntire School of Commerce student Dennis Bates was pleased to find that his work in group settings, a hallmark of the McIntire School curriculum, "easily transferred to the community service work." Bates and his team collected oral histories from chiefs, community leaders, and family members of three men who had contributed to local history, and gained insight about their lives and personalities that they used to create an exhibit, "Cape Coast Celebrities."

As an African-American, Bates said he took away from the experience "a feeling of respect for the ancestors who survived the Atlantic slave trade and satisfaction that I made it back to visit the continent of Africa."

Kristin Clark, a psychology and African and African-American studies double major with a minor in media studies, also worked on the "Cape Coast Celebrities" project. She appreciated the hands-on opportunity to learn "that different things hold different importance to different people," she said. "Something that may not seem important to me may mean very much to someone else. It is important to respect this and understand it."

Fourth-year architecture student Jessica Foster designed the main poster and logo for the "Celebrities" project. "This experience made me recognize the importance of the oral tradition, how easily people can get lost if they do not know where they came from. … I know I wouldn't think to ask my grandma about our family and record it like it was important."

For fourth-year Brian Math, the service-learning class provided an opportunity to apply skills he learned in his architecture classes. He and his team members met with local chiefs to develop a plan to restore Gothic House, a dilapidated 19th-century house and grounds intended to serve as the paramount chief's residence and a community center.

"We met with the chiefs several times to determine their needs and expectations for the compound, as well as to study the existing buildings," Math said. "We produced a series of drawings that the chiefs will use to solicit international aid organizations for donations to complete the restoration of the compound."

Looking to the future, Math said, "I would like to pursue work that benefits the community and improves the quality of life for people in a place, which was the core goal of our Cape Coast projects."

The third team lent its skills to developing a walking tour of the Asafo Shrines — unique military company-sponsored shrines featuring local cultural symbols. The shrines dot courtyards and gathering places throughout the city. To help tourists orient themselves, the team developed a map showing the location of the shrines and developed a brochure and cards that interpret the bold symbols painted on the shrines and put them in a cultural context. As part of an exhibition they developed, they included both photographs and paintings of the shrines made by local artists.

At the end of their stay in Cape Coast, each project team presented its work to the Oguaa Traditional Council and the local community at a public exhibition. They installed permanent displays in a local community center.

At a closing ceremony, each student was presented an African ceremonial Kente cloth in recognition of their contributions. The gift was an apt thank-you for the students' contributions to preserving Cape Coast history; the vibrant stripes and geometric patterns woven into the cloths are symbolic of the history, oral literature, social codes, moral values and aesthetic traditions of Ghana.

By everyone's account, the trip was a success. The people in the Cape Coast community "really appreciated our efforts and are looking forward to continuing the work we started," Clark said.  

"The goal was to not only create a meaningful learning opportunity for U.Va. students, but also to leave something behind which will truly be useful to the Cape Coast community," Cox said.