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  • Ghana, as seen from Togo. Says Tala, "This is probably one of the most beautiful corners of the world I've ever seen."

  • Tala Spencer Ahmadi during a trip to São Tomé and Príncipe.

  • Chale Wote arts and music festival celebrated by the Ga people in Jamestown, Accra. The man under the umbrella is a chief.

Learning to think critically about how the world works

UCLA senior Tala Spencer Ahmadi spent a year studying abroad in Ghana, returning with a deeper view of inequity in world politics and economics.

“Every undergraduate student should study abroad. . . And for students studying international development, it is imperative that they study in a developing country because it is impossible to conceptualize the issues they face from Los Angeles.”

UCLA International Institute, September 26, 2016 — Tala Spencer Ahmadi (UCLA 2017) spent last year studying at the University of Ghana, Legon. Her favorite courses? “Seminal Works in African Thought” and “Colonial Rule and African Response: Nationalism and Independence,” not to mention classes in the Twi language, which is spoken by 9 million people across Ghana.

Balme Library,University of Ghana. It is the largest library in West Africa.
According to Tala, it looks a lot like Hogwarts on the inside.

The year in Accra — the nation’s capital —had a profound effect on the double major in International Development Studies and African and Middle Eastern Studies. “This was single-handedly the most important year of my life,” she says. “It shaped me in ways I don’t think any other experience will ever compare. I became conscious of the reality of world economics and what my privilege means.

“I learned far more about my majors than I ever could have from a classroom at UCLA,” adds Tala. “I realized more about the roots of developing countries’ issues because I was able to actually live in one. I experienced constant, crippling corruption; systemic ineffectiveness; and incompetent healthcare and education.”

Her conclusion: “Every undergraduate student should study abroad. . . And for students studying international development, it is imperative that they study in a developing country because it is impossible to conceptualize the issues they face from Los Angeles.”

Study and travel: Part of the same learning continuum

Like most study abroad students, Tala traveled a great deal. “The general feeling of exploration in Ghana was addictive — I traveled to all the regions of the country save two,” she remarks. “Sitting on a cramped tro tro (minibus) and watching the countryside or city pass by was one of my favorite things to do.” The travel bug also took her to nearby Togo and São Tomé and Príncipe, as well as to the East and Central-East African nations of Kenya and Rwanda, respectively.

Kokrobite, a popular beach town about an hour and a half from Accra. Tala looks at a monkey who followed her and a friend from their hotel all the way to the beach. (Photo: Brooke Klooster )

Cultural lessons included learning to slow down and take life less seriously — “I even learned to walk slower,” she conceded. “Ghanaians, as one of my Ghanaian friends put it, just want to relax, drink a Club (Ghana’s best beer) and laugh with their friends,” she recounted.

“They are some of the most welcoming and friendliest people I have ever met,” says Tala. “When I was traveling throughout the country, I could ask anyone for directions and people would always go out of their way to make sure I was on the correct path and offer me food or water. It taught me how to treat people better, particularly strangers.”

A new perspective on being American

Tala grew up in Maryland with an Iranian father and American mother. “I was raised speaking two different languages, interacting with two different cultures and simultaneously attempting to blend the two to create my identity,” she says. And because her parents loved to travel, she and her sister saw a lot of the world before Tala came to UCLA.

As a result, “I grew up interested in learning and understanding the values, traditions and customs that different people around the world practice,” she remarks. Small wonder that she chose to focus on international studies at college. “UCLA,” Tala points out, “was one of the few schools around the country that offered International Development Studies as a major.”

Elmina Castle, one of many slave castles along the coast of Ghana. Says Tala, "The juxtaposition of the physical beauty of the castle and the unbelievable horrors that took place inside of it was difficult to process."

Two years of study at UCLA and a year of living in Ghana has broadened her perspective still further. “Ghana taught me what it feels like to live as a minority,” she explains. “Being the only white person in a landscape of thousands of Ghanaians, having instant assumptions made about me because of the color of my skin and constantly feeling like a foreigner, even after a year of living in Ghana, opened my eyes to what it feels like to be ‘othered.’”

She is quick to point out that this was “a privileged othering — not quite what many minority communities experience around the world.” Yet it’s clear that she has viscerally understood something that would have been difficult to imagine without living in Africa.

Another major realization was the depth of privilege that she enjoys as an American. “Ghana taught me to think critically about how the world works,” remarks Tala. “I understood what it means to be from one of the most advanced and wealthy nations in the world, as well as coming from a privileged upbringing. Becoming conscious of this has allowed me to recognize global power dynamics and see inequity as what it is: a consequence of exploitation and internal governmental mismanagement.”

As part of her year abroad, Tala did an internship with a grassroots nonprofit that worked in
education, health and sanitation, female empowerment and governmental accountability.
One of her field visits was to this school and orphanage in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

That insight has even changed how she views U.S. grocery stores. “After purchasing my groceries from small stalls alongside the road for a year,” says Tala, “the sheer amount of stuff in the average American grocery store astounded me. The variety is amazing after living in a country with only a handful of western-style grocery stores, but it seems wildly unnecessary.”

As she starts her final year at UCLA, Tala hopes to return to West Africa in the future to work on sustainable social enterprises for women. She discovered, for example, that many women’s cooperatives in Ghana make natural goods, such as shea butter, that sell for high prices in the U.S. “I want to figure out a way for women living in poverty to tap into Western markets, thereby increasing their social mobility and aiding female empowerment,” she says.

Published: Monday, September 26, 2016