Story, photos and video by Zach Putnam
Editor’s note: This is the second post in a three-post series written by SOJC students who interned in Ghana this summer through the Media in Ghana program. Read the first post, “Six weeks in Ghana: Unexpected lessons and no single story” by Rachel Benner.
The cacophonous din of urban life in Accra floats through the mercifully cool morning air up to our second-floor balcony as I sip from my hot mug of Milo (think Ovaltine) and eat a few perfectly ripe and tiny bananas for breakfast. Among the sounds of roosters crowing, taxi horns honking and the distant chorus of very loud gospel music playing somewhere, I can hear the screen door slam downstairs as the other Media in Ghana students leave the house for their daily treks to work.
A sample of the sights and sounds of Okponglo Junction, the neighborhood where the Media in Ghana students lived in Accra.
Since I last studied in Ghana as an undergrad in 2002, the roads in the capital city have greatly improved, but the traffic has become much worse. Rush-hour commuters packed like sardines into tro-tros (minibuses) pass the time by surfing on their smartphones, while roadside vendors take advantage of the gridlock to hawk everything from leather belts to bofrots (like big, spongy donut holes) through the open windows. On the concrete walls just beyond the sidewalks full of merchants, dozens of presidential campaign posters are plastered beneath towering billboards for mobile phone plans and mosquito sprays. Occasionally, a preacher will board your tro-tro and shout an invigorating sermon above the traffic noise.
For the month of July, a little over a dozen of Accra’s tro-tro commuters were obronis (foreigners) from the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC). All 15 students worked as full-time interns at various media organizations around the city. Some were daily reporters at major news outlets, while others were managing campaigns at high-profile ad agencies.
In addition to old-fashioned culture shock and jet lag, these tough Ducks dealt with the stresses of starting a new job and enduring grueling commutes. Almost everyone had a long tro-tro ride into the heart of the city each morning. Everyone, that is, except for me.
When they weren’t working, the Media in Ghana students went on many extracurricular adventures, like this visit to a primary school in the Nima neighborhood of Accra.
Back at the University of Ghana
My internship is at the University of Ghana, whose campus begins just on the other side of Okponglo junction, the major intersection we live near in the neighborhood of East Legon. The Radio Univers studio at the School of Communication Studies where I’m working is less than a mile from our front door.
I attended classes at UG’s department of African Studies in 2002, and the university has always been one of my favorite parts of the capital. Perched on a hill, the sprawling campus is quiet and verdant, with towering palm trees flanking rows of white academic buildings.
I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing in my internship until the first day, when station manager Dr. Ahmed Abubakari Sidick invited me to teach a monthlong crash-course workshop in photo and video journalism to the Radio Univers staff of student journalists. One of my primary goals in attending grad school is to gain teaching experience, so I was thrilled for this opportunity to be in front of a classroom.
Before bringing us to Ghana, Media in Ghana’s program director, SOJC Professor Leslie Steeves, asked us all to think critically about the ways Africa is often portrayed in the media, and to challenge ourselves to avoid those clichés and stereotypes in our own work. Teaching multimedia journalism felt like a perfect avenue to address this conundrum. What better way to help young Ghanaians take ownership of their image than to equip them with the skills to tell their own stories?
My crash course in multimedia journalism
Sixteen UG students quickly signed up for the workshop, and I realized I had only a few days to cobble together my first lesson plan. I never could have done it without the transatlantic advice and support I received from Sung Park, co-director of the SOJC’s Multimedia Journalism master’s program, back in Eugene. Park taught multimedia journalism at UG when he was a Fulbright scholar in 2013, so he was able to offer me countless key insights.
When my impeccably dressed students trickled into Seminar Room 16 on the first day, many of them looked as nervous as I felt. I tried to break the ice with a demonstration of my feeble grasp of the local Twi language. My pupils were unimpressed but politely amused. While we waited for a few stragglers to arrive, I asked the students why they wanted to take this workshop.
Klukpui Lord Edem, an environmental studies major, wants to learn landscape photography to make more compelling presentations of his research. Emmanuel Danso-Acheampong is interested in mastering video production so he can pursue sports broadcasting. Mounkeila Abdoul-Razak Hassane explained that he simply wants to use photography and videography to “change the world and make it a better place.” I smiled and told him we might not get to that in this workshop, but I do admire his big plans.
Day one of class went better than I could have hoped. The students were enthusiastic and excited to learn everything I could share. They all stayed a full hour after the class to practice with the cameras and ask more questions. Is there anything better than watching someone discover something new that they love to do?
I can lecture about exposure triangles and color temperatures all day, I told them, but the only real way to learn the technical stuff is to go out and shoot. Instead I chose to spend most of our class time talking about the art of storytelling, which has a famously long history in Ghana. I asked my students to consider what makes a photo or video into a story, and what ethical choices we can make in the way we tell those stories. I think my SOJC professors would have been proud.
It was fun to see my students learn, but I know I learned more from them than they ever could from me. My students coached me in speaking Twi and following proper Ghanaian etiquette. They explained national political scandals and recommended the best local music and food. The photos and videos they took for their assignments showed me sides of Ghanaian life that I could never have seen on my own. Getting to see the country through their eyes was an amazing opportunity for me.
Saying goodbye to Ghana
Today is the last day of class, and I know I’ll be sad to say goodbye.
It’s late morning and I’m weaving my way through Okponglo junction toward the campus. Above the swaying palm trees, the sky is darkening and threatening to rain, but the air is still hot and sticky. I can hear the call to prayer resonating from the speakers affixed to our local mosque. On the way through our neighborhood, I pass many familiar faces: Matias inside his lotto stand, Sylvester at his coconut cart, Abigail the kenkey maker, and the proprietors of a half-dozen variations of grocery and hardware stores wedged between them all. Just after the boiling pot of fried yams, I wave and smile to the woman behind my favorite fruit stand, quickly making a mental inventory of her wares for my trip home. Pineapples, mangos, bananas and watermelon.
I eat an enormous amount of fresh fruit in Ghana. It’s just so good here.
On my short journey to the school, I think about all the other incredible opportunities I’ve had on this trip. Through the African Women’s Development Fund, I was commissioned to create a few short films about women’s empowerment programs in Ghana.
And I had yet another chance to teach filmmaking when I helped SOJC Assistant Professor Ed Madison run a pilot of his Digital Skills Workshop with young art students in the lower-economic-class neighborhood of Nima. I can’t believe how much I’ve squeezed into these six weeks.
Before class begins, one of my best students, Nii Armah Ammah, is eager to show me a gorgeous spread of photos he took at the UG graduation ceremony over the weekend. I feel a little choked up with pride as he scrolls through the album and points out his application of the rule of thirds, leading lines and all the other utterly nerdy knowledge I forced down his throat this month.
“Zach?” another student asks. “What you’ve taught us about photography — is that everything there is to know?”
I laugh out loud and he smiles back, but I can see he’s not joking.
“No, no. Sorry,” I say, “I’m still learning new things about photography all the time, and I’ve been doing this for years.”
He looks a little crestfallen, so I go on. “But just look how far you’ve already come! And you can always write to me and ask me anything. Any time. Forever. I promise.”
This seems to make him feel a little better, and I turn to the other students: “That goes for all of you.”
I worry that they’re all too polite to take me up on the offer, but about a week after I leave Ghana, I get a heartwarming thank-you email from one of my favorite students, Eleazer Quayson.
“Most admittedly,” he writes, “it was an intriguing learning experience, coming to terms with the fact that photos needn’t only capture beautiful moments, but can be translated into telling wonderful stories that words can find difficult. I’ll refer to the notes provided and make the attempt to become better, if not the best.”
I can’t wait to see that, Eleazer.
Zach Putnam is a graduate student in his second year of the Multimedia Journalism Master’s program in Portland. He has operated his own boutique video production company, focused primarily on creating documentary shorts commissioned by nonprofit organizations, for over ten years. You can see examples of his work at zachputnam.com.