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Material lessons

While in Ghana

Fashion merchandising lecturer recounts experiences from study-abroad trip to Ghana with six of her students

Editor’s note: Emily Blalock is a fashion merchandising lecturer in the department of textiles, merchandising and interiors who also oversees its internship program. A longer version of this story was published in the fall 2011 issue of FACS Magazine.

What I expected to see wasn’t there, while the unexpected greeted me with a warm Ghanaian smile. I had anticipated larger-than-life swarms of mosquitoes that would carry me away and locals who would be reserved and indifferent toward a group of American college students and their professors.

On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised by the balmy weather, the joyous attitudes of the Ghanaians we met, the bustling city life and my departure with only one small bug bite.

Six fashion merchandising students and I were part of the 2011 Ghana Interdisciplinary Study-Abroad Program, which encompassed UGA disciplines such as education, social work, art and family and consumer sciences. And given the diverse interests, the trip boasted a broad curriculum and wide-ranging site visits.

One day students were volunteering in the Kumasi Orphanage, and the next day they were learning to weave kente cloth—a silk-and-cotton Ghanaian specialty—in the Bonwire Kente Village. We spent time learning from Ghanaian college professors, as well as from market women who lack formal education but use their commercial skills, such as bartering, to sell products to locals and tourists alike.

A grant from the James Family Foundation provided the students enrolled in my own class—“Retail Development in Ghana: An Entrepreneurial Case Study”—with the opportunity to partner both with Athens retailers and Ghanaian entrepreneurs. Prior to the trip, each student met with an Athens-based business owner and analyzed his or her merchandising strategy, identifying products for the business’ target consumers.

Once they arrived in Ghana, the students were each given $250 for their purchases and the charge to discover new products, establish relationships with Ghanaian vendors and select appropriate products for their retailers.

From their first day in action, the fashion merchandising students juggled the stress that comes from shopping in large open-air markets, mentally converting cedis (the local currency) into American dollars, and bartering with skilled shop owners who immediately recognize us as Westerners able to pay far higher prices than local shoppers. At the end of each day, the students huddled over their notebooks, recording each purchase and its price, double-checking which items still needed to be bought and worrying whether they had made fair deals.

During lectures by Ghanaian faculty members, we learned that most women in the country have limited economic options even though many of them function as single parents. They sometimes receive what is called chop (money from their absent husbands) but often they have to rely solely on their own resources to feed their frequently large families.

While poverty is a constant among women in Ghana, as it is in many developing countries, there are female Ghanaian entrepreneurs who have achieved some level of prosperity. Ginatu Doe, a master dressmaker who in past years has lectured UGA groups and provided tours of her company, is one of them. On this trip, two of the students already had worked with their Athens retailers to develop apparel ideas. Thus, in addition to purchasing locally made cloth in the market they collaborated with Ginatu to fine-tune those ideas. By the time they left Ghana, Ginatu had created skirts and dresses that have since been among the quickest items to sell back home.

One of our most memorable experiences was sharing a morning with the women of BaBa Blankets. This is a social enterprise that rescues women from the streets (and, often, from prostitution) by teaching them to sustain themselves through apparel sewing and dyeing. During a four-hour workshop in the blazing African sun, we learned the ancient technique of batiking—the hand-dyeing of fabric with the aid of hot wax. Afterward, we toured the women’s living facilities at BaBa Blankets and their retail studio where the colorful batik fabrics are sewn into fashionable accessories and apparel—some of which we all purchased, whether for our Athens retailers or our own closets.

Since returning, the students have been working with their Athens retailers, creating inventory catalogs, garment logos, hang tags, prices and signage with the hope that the articles will sell quickly and that the retailers will opt to continue the international partnership. Although each of us have now settled back into our busy routines, the students continue to tell me that they learned so much in Ghana, that their connecting of Athens businesses with Ghanaian entrepreneurs was a source of pride and that these experiences have enriched their lives.