Over winter break, I went on a Texas Global Business and Microfinance Brigade to Ghana with other UT students. While there, we worked in a village called Ekumfi Ebiram promoting financial literacy and helping business owners grow their business through savings and loans (for more information see my former post Akwaaba! and check out my personal blog as write and post the details from my trip). Returning to McCombs for my final semester, I brought back several lessons from my adventure.
The first and biggest benefit of this opportunity was that it really tested my understanding of basic business concepts. When teaching people the purpose and importance of saving, describing what interest was and how it worked, and explaining the role of a guarantor of a loan, etc., there were times I had to really dig deep and think about how I could explain this to someone who had no former experience with these sorts of financial terms. When I was asked to explain interest, for example, my automatic mental response was “time value of money”. I had to really step back and find a way to explain clearly the concept of interest. Other members of the microfinance brigade had to tap into their knowledge and explain things like what savings are, what a loan is, how to analyze risks, rewards of a business plan, and explaining how to maintain a ledger.
The next benefit was gaining experience in working across cultural boundaries. English is the main language of Ghana, and children learn English in school. However, must of the adults we worked with weren’t proficient in speaking English because there aren’t many opportunities to practice outside of school. We worked with families through interpreters. The interpreters also aided in explaining the cultural significance of things the families would tell us, because there is nothing similar to it in the US. Another cultural difference we encountered was the need to avoid gestures and body language that would be construed as offensive while working with the families. For example, in Ghanaian culture it is insulting to show others the bottoms of your feet. This meant that crossing your legs was a big “no-no”, which was really difficult to remember because it was second nature to most of us.
Our microfinance work also taught us how to ask effective questions in order to gain an understanding of the primary businesses and industries of the families of the village and provide the best advice to grow their businesses. Most families didn’t consider the activities they engaged in as “work”, and were engaged in a number of things. They also had one main source of income, in addition to farming and making charcoal for their families. Putting my cost accounting classes to good use, we crunched the numbers we gathered about each family’s business and came up with a savings plan for them to reach their financial goals.
I have had the opportunity to visit a number of countries this year, and never have I been to a place where I was so welcomed, accepted, and appreciated outside of my family. Ekumfi Ebiram is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been, not because of its physical characteristics, but because of the beauty of the people’s culture and hearts. I found the community we worked in to be very courageous as a whole. After all, they regularly welcome in cycles of college students, who have little to no understanding of their culture, with open arms and eagerness. They let us into their homes where we poke around their personal lives and analyze their private decisions all because they hope to better their lives and the lives of their children.
This trip resulted in my becoming very appreciative of a lot of things I typically take for granted. At a superficial level, I will now appreciate toilets, full-sized showers, air conditioning, lattes, pizza, and internet access. But on a more meaningful level, I am so very appreciative that I was able to pursue my education to the full extent I wanted to. Most individuals in Ghana do not continue education past the junior high level because high school is not subsidized by the government and most families can’t afford to send their kids. The government also has no educational loan system in place, so without the money there is no chance an individual can use education to break out of the circle of poverty. Knowing millions of people go without them every day, I am also grateful for the opportunity to have access to things like healthcare, clean water, a bed, food, and all the things we take for granted.