Cultural immersion: A recent Monument grad travels to GhanaMore Info
Great Barrington — Ethan Mazursky is inherently obsessed with both finding and exploring culture outside of the Berkshires. In fact, the 19-year-old’s most fervent passions—food, music and travel—all hinge on their connection to worlds outside of the region in which he was born and raised. “I always want more to experience,” said Mazursky, who is equally drawn to bowls of authentic ramen in the streets of New York City’s Chinatown as he is to the strains of blues-inspired Gary Clark Jr., who he will hear live in Northampton next month. This past June, following his graduation from Monument Mountain Regional High School, Mazursky devoured another unique opportunity: He travelled to Ghana, West Africa, to take part in a two-week service-learning experience that has further whet his appetite for travel.
“Everyone should experience another culture so they can broaden their view of the world,” is Mazursky’s philosophy. “It just makes you realize how the world works,” he added. Mazursky’s immersion in the culture of Ghana came about thanks to hard work, determination and Global Leadership Adventures. GLA, an organization offering life-changing journeys for teens, was founded by Peace Corps volunteer Andrew Motiwalla, who was eager to share his experiences with others. Mazursky, who traveled to Peru with a group of classmates in the summer of 2014, first learned about GLA from his friend Lucy Doren. Between June 12 and 25, both Mazursky and Doren fell into the unique and incredible position of being part of a diverse group of high school students from across the globe who travelled to Ghana to make a difference—and be the change—far from home.
“It opened up the door to my wanting to travel and do service work,” said Mazursky of his initial trip to Peru where he and his classmates worked in an orphanage; played games with the kids who lived there; and took intensive, three-hour Spanish immersion classes. When Mazursky began formulating a plan for his last summer at home before college, he was on the fence as to where he would travel next: Ghana or Thailand. Doren, who had previously traveled to Ghana with GLA, promised the kids there she would return. “[Lucy] ultimately convinced me to go to Africa…but what really got me was the fact that we [would be] there for the children, to be a positive influence on these kids who really don’t have anything,” said Mazursky.
Ghana—officially the Republic of Ghana—has a population of approximately 28 million that spans a variety of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that inhabit a diverse geographical landscape ranging from coastal savannahs to tropical rainforests. For the duration of his two-week trip, Mazursky’s home base was the Krobo region of Ghana, one of 21 districts of the eastern region of south Ghana, the capital of which is Odumase Krobo. Mazursky, scrolling through an iPhone jam-packed with stunning photos, described the region as, “beautiful [and] super humid,” adding that he was sweating constantly, even when standing still.
A typical morning was marked by rising early and eating breakfast, usually plain rice or porridge with honey and milk, before embarking on the day’s work. Mornings were devoted to teaching English to local students at the Krobo Primary School. Mazursky, who worked with children in grades K–5, described the students and, “so sweet, [and] so smart.” Mazursky also explained that, since Ghana was colonized by Britain, learning English has been part of the curriculum. In the years since 1957, when Ghana gained its independence, the introduction of English has been a way to connect with the western world for a native population whose first language is Krobo. The latter part of each day was designed to be more organic, and afternoons were spent at the park where local kids would just show up to play soccer, volleyball and tag. This freedom both alleviated the pressure of too much structure and allowed for the American teenagers to literally meet the Ghanaian children where they were.
“Something to keep in mind is their mindset and attitude toward life is so much more positive than anyone I’ve ever met around here,” remarked Mazursky of the kids he met in Krobo. “They were the most positive, happy kids ever,” he added. Which, he went on to comment, “speaks a lot to what we are doing wrong [in America].” He described meeting kids at the park, playing soccer without shoes and wearing the same clothes all week. Mazursky was immediately taken aback by the ways in which they were identified as foreigners. As to the most common question he received? “Do you have a phone?”, which was mostly followed by “Can I see your phone?” There was also a general fascination on the part of Krobo village children with having their photos taken. “It’s something you can’t describe,” gushed Mazursky. “The look you see on their faces—something is captured, a moment,” he trailed off. Despite his relative youth, Mazursky was keen on one important fact: The often one-sided story we have about those living in Africa is balanced by the often one-sided story those in Africa have about Americans. Spending time with one another is a simple yet effective way of getting a more robust and accurate picture for both sides.
“The culture that they are brought up in reflects pure happiness and gratefulness for what they have,” said Mazursky, adding, “even when what they do have is so little.” That said, the villagers of Krobo have what matters most: family, friends, food and church. Mazursky saw religion in Krobo, where nearly 83 percent of the population identifies as Christian, as being a “huge, dominating factor in a great way.” He went on to add: “[the people of Ghana have] such a beautiful way … they have a lot more to teach us than we could ever teach them,” he added.
Mazursky overcame an enormous stigma of travelling—the perception that it’s a luxury—by eliciting support from the community through a GoFundMe page. In addition to funds he earned working as a lifeguard at Berkshire South Regional Community Center and money contributed by his parents, Danny and Tanya Mazursky of South Egremont, he raised $1,000 dollars on the popular online fundraising platform to offset his travel expenses. In short, Mazursky cites the generosity of many—and, in some cases, complete strangers—as facilitating his trip. “It doesn’t hurt to ask [others for help]” he said, noting how most people found his mission admirable: to experience a culture that is quite possibly the complete opposite of American culture. “I’m super grateful for this,” Mazursky said of GoFundMe. “It made my trip happen.”
Despite the physical journey having concluded, the lasting effects are not lost on Mazursky, who will attend Skidmore College in the fall. In a traditional naming ceremony conducted by the local staff of GLA, Mazursky and his 23 American companions were dressed in traditional garments, donned with traditional face paint and given aboriginal names. Mazursky’s was Angmar, Krobo for “first-born son.” It is a name he will continue to carry with him as a reminder of the indelible mark his journey halfway around the world has left on his adventurous spirit. “I loved the service aspect,” said Mazursky of his travel to Ghana. “Connecting with the kids and being able to make a small impact—it was super enlightening,” he added.
As for those of us more tethered to the Berkshires? Rest assured this kid’s got advice for us, too: “Everyone should travel and experience another culture to broaden their view of the world. It is a crucial thing to be able to do as a human—to talk to others about their experiences. If you have just a single, 2D experience, there’s not much to talk about. Perhaps the best way [to do this] is to travel. [But] if you can’t go somewhere, talk to someone who is from another place. It doesn’t have to be from the other side of the world … Listen to their music. Eat their food. There’s more than meets the eye. Always.”