Toreros Abroad: Ghana, Africa

Junior Megan McDonell was one of five USD students who embarked on a three-night homestay and school visit in Senase, Ghana. Photo courtesy of Glenn McDonell

Semester at Sea students share their experience at a three-night homestay in Senase, Ghana

Glenn McDonell | Contributor | The USD Vista

This September, several students on the current voyage of Semester at Sea (SAS) had the chance to connect with a rural community in Ghana as part of a three-night homestay and school-visit experience.  Among this group of around 30 SAS students were University of San Diego juniors Grace O’Brien, Serena Bonafede, Camille Cohan, my sister Megan McDonell, and myself.  

As the five of us disembarked the MV World Odyssey and stepped onto African soil for the first time, we braced ourselves for a deluge of culture shock and unfamiliar new experiences.  However, the first shock came not from difference but from coincidence. Fredrick Benneh, our local guide and leader, studied at USD for a semester and lived in the UTAs just several months before the now junior class moved into the first-year dorms in the fall of 2015. Bonafede expressed her surprise at this coincidence.

“I was totally mind-blown to learn about this connection to our campus,” Bonafede said. “I never expected to run into someone who shared so many of our experiences so far away from home.”  

McDonell expressed a similar reaction. 

“From the moment we learned about Fred’s time at USD, we were absolutely ecstatic,” McDonell said. “It felt like it was almost meant to be.”  

As a Torero on hiatus from his studies at Hult International Business School in London, Benneh competed in and won the 2015 Social Innovation Challenge (SIC). With the resources provided to him from the SIC, he sought out to change the way Ghanaian elementary taught and punished their students. Ghanaian elementary schools tend to emphasize rote memorization and often use corporal punishment to discipline students. Benneh’s model for social innovation is different. Through the integration of technology, positive reinforcement, and hands-on learning, he believes that children can gain the skills they need to escape Ghana’s severe rural poverty cycle.  

Toreros assisted local instructors by teaching lessons, reading in classrooms, and regulating recess time.
Photo courtesy of Glenn McDonell

Equipped with a sum of money from the challenge, Benneh was able to finance the project of his dreams in his home village of Senase, Ghana, the destination of our bus trip. Bonafede said she was inspired by Benneh’s success in the challenge.  

“I felt honored to be a part of a university that provides opportunities for great ideas which can benefit lives of others to become reality,” Bonafede said. “Getting the chance to be a part of his story was so exciting.”  

The story of Benneh’s project began well before his time as a Torero and his success in the Social Innovation Challenge.  As a student at the Hotel Catering and Tourism Institute at Greenhill College in Ghana’s capital city of Accra, Benneh started his first social enterprise, Can Do Tours, in 2011, at the age of 18.  Ever since then, he has been taking groups of travelers on homestays in his village, many of them Semester at Sea students like ourselves.  

A significant portion of the proceeds from Benneh’s tour company became contributions to the GodFred’s Foundation, which Benneh started in partnership with a former Semester at Sea student and client of his tour company, Barbara Allison.  Each and every Semester at Sea student who has visited the school since Allison’s first visit has contributed in some way to making the Semanhyiya American School, or “SAS,” into the school it is today.

With this legacy in mind, our group set out to earn our place in the school’s ever-growing extended family and write our chapter in its short but proud history.  For Cohan, this involved a combination of give and take.  

“I wanted to touch the lives of the kids at the school and have them touch mine even more,” Cohan said.  “That’s exactly what ended up happening and I couldn’t be more grateful for my time spent here.”  

A day with the children of the Semanhyiya school began with an early morning hand-in-hand escort to the school bus pickup location.  McDonell recalled the early morning hours as one of her favorite times of the day. 

“I loved starting my day rolling down dirt roads on a bus full of chaotic laughter and joy” McDonell said.  “It was obvious to me that the children wanted to be at school, which to me meant that the teachers were doing something right.”  

After every child arrived, we Toreros were given the chance to assist teachers with daily operations.  Some of us taught lessons or read books aloud in classrooms, while others regulated recess time or assembled some of the playground equipment donated from abroad.  

Glenn and Megan McDonell, USD juniors and twins, smile with a community member from Senase. Photo courtesy of Glenn McDonell

Those who helped out in the classroom were sometimes tasked with teaching an entire lesson while the teacher maintained some sense of order. Topics ranged from the alphabet in kindergarten to proper nouns or multiplication in the third grade, which is the highest grade level offered.

Bonafede said that her time teaching a math lesson was one of the more memorable and rewarding experiences at the school.  

“I felt that I was able to give something to this community when helping teachers at the school figure out ways to teach their students math and different subjects,” Bonafede said. “Getting close to the kids and teaching them things that they were interested in was very fulfilling.” 

McDonell also spent time assisting the teachers in one of the classrooms. She made several observations of how the teachers interacted with their students.  

“I’ve noticed how a key to what makes the Semanhyiya school different is positive reinforcement,” McDonell said. “The kids are rewarded for good behavior, which helps motivate them and instills values.”  

Our time at the school ended with a school-wide assembly, during which the teachers and students delivered a poignant farewell to our group, complete with song and dance.  For Bonafede, this moment was particularly special.  

“The most powerful moment during my time at the Semanhyiya School was when we danced with the kids,” Bonafede said. “The kids and teachers started singing ‘It’s a Small World’ while waving flags from the countries we were visiting on our voyage, and I couldn’t help but get emotional.” 

The name of the school, “semanhyiya,” translates roughly from the local language to mean “if we had never met.”  This sentiment began with Barbara Allison, the original visitor from Semester at Sea, but has continued to carry a deep meaning for every voyage since.  For Cohan, our time at the school was more than just a fun time with kids — it was a change of heart and mind. 

“The community gave me a new perspective on Africa and the people in Ghana,” Cohan said. “I’ve never encountered such genuinely happy people who were so generous with what they had, and the love I received will forever stick with me and I’m so thankful for it.” 

McDonell is pictured here interacting with Senase schoolchildren.
Photo courtesy of Glenn McDonell

Before leaving the Semanhyiya community behind, our group painted “MV WORLD ODYSSEY” on the side of the children’s playground’s pirate ship to commemorate our ship’s impact on the school. We left the village of Senase and the nation of Ghana feeling proud to be part of such an incredible story.  

As we come home to the USD community, all of us will hold a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a social innovator, a changemaker, and a global citizen.  Cohan stressed the importance of passing on the story of Fred and the Semanhyiya school. 

“Being a Changemaker campus, it’s important that we know how Toreros are making a difference all around the world,” Cohan said.  “The fact that a USD international student created this school means we should definitely pay attention.”  

Benneh’s time as a student at USD combined with his connection to Semester at Sea brought these three communities together in a special way.  His passion for social change and his entrepreneurial spirit have improved the futures of hundreds of children in his community and have made the world a slightly smaller place.