• Akosua K. Darkwah

COVID-19: A Silver Lining for Ghanaian Academics?

The first time I heard of COVID-19 was the morning of Sunday January 26th, 2020. I was on my way to San Francisco enroute to San Diego for the Sociologists for Women in Society’s Winter Conference. I had stopped over in Washington DC from Accra to break up a rather long flight and my friend who took me to the airport joked that I was going to the part of the country with the strange Corona virus. I spent a week on the West Coast and paid little attention to what was happening with the virus. Fast forward to mid-February 2020. Each morning, I would wake up to find members of my household eager to share the news about COVID-19 as it unfolded on television. It all seemed very far off from us and we often discussed the irony that the West and not Africa was the site of pretty bad news day after day. On Thursday March 12th, however, everything changed and pretty quickly. The Norwegian Ambassador to Ghana tested positive on that day. The next day, a student at the University of Ghana where I teach, who had been on an exchange programme in North America also tested positive. The student and persons she/he had been in contact with were quarantined that day and the university closed the day after. By Sunday evening, the President of Ghana was announcing that all schools were to close down with immediate effect. As with other parts of the world, international flights were banned, a partial lock down was imposed although only for three weeks in Ghana and a new fashion sensibility developed in Ghana as face masks made out of African fabric started appearing on our streets. It all seemed very surreal. Unlike the West where the response unfolded slowly as the situation grew from an epidemic to a pandemic, everything happened in Ghana quite quickly giving the population little time to adjust to, let alone comprehend our new reality.

At the university, distance education took on a whole new meaning. While we had prior access to educational software platforms such as Sakai, the majority of faculty really only used the resource function on that platform to share reading material and course outlines with students. We all therefore had to undergo a crash course delivered by the university’s IT experts on a range of topics such as how to administer examinations or use the forum tool on Sakai. Many of us were introduced to Zoom for the first time and taught how to navigate that system. We debated the use of other tools for teaching and whether we could and should combine synchronous and asynchronous teaching. While faculty had a steep learning curve on how to use technology to teach, the administrators had a bigger problem on their hands, how to ensure that all students had access to the equipment that would allow them to take classes online. Of the different technological devices that allow internet usage, mobile phones are ostensibly the cheapest. Mobile phone penetration is extremely high in Ghana. In fact, according to a report on the Ghanaian mobile sector, as of 2020, the mobile phone penetration rate in Ghana is 140% (https://www.statista.com/statistics/779708/mobile-connection-penetration-rate-ghana). However, only 35% of the population are online (Delle, 2019, xvii).1 As is the case in other countries, class plays a role in access to technology. Concerned with how to ensure that no student was disenfranchised as we all moved to online learning, the University of Ghana entered into an agreement with Vodafone Ghana to provide both faculty and staff with free internet bundles. Five weeks after the university shut down abruptly, we resumed classes and ironed out the kinks in the system as we went along. As I write this, online final examinations are underwayand as Head of Department, I am extremely relieved that together with the rest of the faculty members in my Department, we all made it to the end of the semester in one piece. We adjusted to our new reality of teaching online, holding seminars online and attending a range of university meetings online, some of which could go on for three straight hours. Many emails as well as group WhatsApp messages among faculty have been sent back and forth as we all learnt to navigate new systems at the university. All of that work paid off. We have ensured that our current crop of students will finish the semester albeit five weeks later than usual and all things considered, that is a small price to pay.

We definitely are living in new times. And while I will not wish this first half of the year on anybody, our new reality also provides both students and faculty with opportunities we did not have before. First is the incredible exposure to Ghanaian academics that the Zoom platform affords students. Like many other African countries, a fair amount of Ghanaian academics ply their trade outside of the continent. Many big name scholars who write about Ghana live and work outside the country and with our meagre resources, we are unable to bring them to the university. Zoom changed all of that. Suddenly, so long as time constraints were taken into consideration, faculty members from around the world could be invited into classrooms in Ghana for a lively discussion. This was the case in an English class that Kwabena Opoku-Agyeman taught which had Ato Quayson, a renowned Ghanaian scholar at Stanford University join in from California. Friends with both of them and a great fan of African literature, I joined in too. Since that day, I have redesigned my class on globalization that I plan to teach next semester. I am no longer constrained by financial resources. Drawing on my networks and with a little bit of planning, I can invite scholars and public intellectuals around the world into my classroom and provide my students with the kind of intellectual community that students in well-resourced environments take for granted.

Students have newfound learning opportunities and so do faculty. In addition to teaching, faculty do research and that also has been stalled in this time of COVID-19. A junior colleague and I had just received clearance from the ethics committee at our university to begin an 18 month funded project to study identity formation among second-generation immigrants in Ghana when Ghana got its first case of COVID-19. We agonized for six weeks as to what to do. Eventually, we settled on Zoom interviews. While this is an appropriate medium for interviewing given the circumstances, it has its drawbacks, key among which is the implications for the diversity of our sample. Low income second-generation immigrants are not likely to be part of this sample. They cannot afford the equipment or internet to participate. So, we find that our sample comprises professional, middle-income families only. We have been using a snowball sampling technique to find our research participants and soon we discovered that our interviewees were calling us upand say, “I have a friend who fits your sample criteria but this friend lives in Botswana. Does it matter?” When we were first confronted with this question, we did not quite know what to say. Funding challenges here mean that we basically adhere to the principles of what Wimmer and Glick-Schiller (2003) will call methodological nationalism.2 We do not have the luxury of debating its pitfalls. It is what it is. Suddenly though, with technology, we need not fly into another country to gain access to research participants. Multi-sited research is possible from the comfort of our homes. Ironically, we had initially written our proposal as a multi-sited project but had to abandon it when the funder suggested that we develop the study in phases to make it easier to fund. Now, here we are constrained by finances but enabled by COVID-19-induced adoption of technology to undertake multi-sited research. All manner of research possibilities are now open to us and we have some lessons to share with other colleagues on the continent, key among which are our colleagues in the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the continent’s leading social science research community. CODESRIA encourages multi-country and multidisciplinary research projects through its Multinational Working Group (MWG). A team of researchers from different countries will work on a similar topic but in their own countries over a period of time. While the data is analyzed within and between countries, data collection is strictly limited to nationals within a specific country. We just might do something different next time we have the opportunity to join a MWG and when we do, we will credit COVID-19 for what it enabled us to do.

Since March, COVID-19 has led us on a path of both challenges and new discoveries. As an academic who holds an administrative position, I have been both frustrated at the range of problems I have had to resolve and amazed at what a group of academics committed to their goals of teaching and research can achieve even under the most trying of circumstances. I have also learnt that this period presents opportunities we would not have considered a year ago. Years from now, I hope that my colleagues and I will look back and marvel at how we not only survived the year(s?) when our world was literally turned upside down as academics, but also discovered and permanently adopted new ways of teaching and doing research.

Akosua K. Darkwah is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Ghana. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses primarily on the ways in which global economic policies and practices reconfigure women’s work in the Ghanaian context. Her current research explores the implications of the development of cultural policies for women in the creative arts industry. In addition to her life as an academic, Akosua Darkwah devotes time to the cause of women serving as a steering committee member of the Network for Women's Rights, Ghana's leading women's rights organisation. She reviews for Women's Studies International Forum and Gender and Society and has recently joined the African Studies Review's editorial board.

1. Delle, S. (2019). Making Futures: Young Entrepreneurs in a Dynamic Africa. Abuja: Cassava Republic.

2. Wimmer, A., & Schiller, N. G. (2003). Methodological nationalism, the social sciences, and the study of migration: an essay in historical epistemology International migration review, 37(3), 576-610.