Settling In & The Tyranny of Passport Photos

This week has been all about getting acquainted. My small room in a Soviet-era hostel (dorm) is becoming my home, albeit a temporary one. (I was told that we’d be moving to “renovated” rooms in an identical Soviet-era building across a small field this week. When they told me that, I mentally doubled it.)  I’m getting to know the University of Ghana campus. All the places to eat. My department. The other Rotary Scholars. The ropes.


All the campus buildings are this lovely combination of white walls and red tile roof. They almost all have courtyards to allow the breeze to move through the rooms. There are (very red) dirt footpaths everywhere, and all kinds of gorgeous tropical trees.

There are people - mostly women - selling food around campus. This woman is carrying a tray of bananas (on her head, naturally.) Today I finally learned why the women selling bananas also sell little bags of nuts. They're peanuts. You get the bag of peanuts, tear it open, put a few in your mouth and then take a bite of banana. Voila! Peanut and banana! Possibly the best mid-morning snack I've ever had.

God Is Good Special: Beans and Plantains


Insect - possibly termite - mound

A home for people and a home for insects. I am not screwing with the perspective here. These are giant. And they're everywhere.

"Electronic Workshop" sign

IT resources.

Drums for sale


Night view from my hostel.

It may not be a palace, but I have a pretty view.

Fruit stand

After lunch....

About those ropes. Large institutions invariably have systems and bureaucracies that are apparently inscrutable to outsiders trying to navigate them, but whose members – the insiders – seem to feel are obvious, intuitive, self-evident. And immutable. The University of Ghana is no exception. Let’s take as an example the passport photo. Now I’m no stranger to the passport photo. I don’t use it frequently, but I did apply for a new passport this spring. And I’ve applied for visas now and then.  But here the passport photo reigns supreme. You need one for everything. Want to register? You need a passport photo for that. (Actually, international graduate students need at least three to register: One for the International Programs Office. One for the School of Research and Graduate Studies. And one for your department.)  Trying to audit a course in another department? You need a passport photo for that. Looking to get permission to use the library? You need a passport photo for that.  Signing up for a student organization? Hand over a passport photo.

My passport photos

If only they were a little more flattering...

The passport photo thing is only the amusing tip of a tangled bureaucratic mess of an iceberg. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor!) I spent the first few days of the week worrying about making sure I’d filled out the proper forms and given the proper documents – and photos – to all the proper people. I ran between departments, asking questions, collecting forms, with mounting frustration. Then, thwarted again and again, I finally accepted the inevitable. I may never know, exactly, if I’m registered for classes. Or how to check out a book in the library. Or whether and when the Grad Student Association is meeting. And I will have to give out a million copies of my passport photo.

My department, though, is lovely. Regina, another of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars, and I are both in the M.A. program at the Institute of African Studies. There are somewhere between twelve and sixteen students in our class. (I don’t know the exact number because, apparently, the first week is sort of optional.) Except for Regina and I, they’re all Ghanaians, and they’re a smart, interesting group.

Institute for African Studies

My department's beautiful new building

Particularly interesting is Nana, a career broadcast journalist who is also a Queenmother, which an important role in Ghana tribal life. (That’s about the extent of my knowledge about Queenmothers so far; I’ll report back when I learn more.) She wants to research the role of these women in using their power to create social change. More about her later.

Regina and Nana

Regina and Nana

Already people’s personalities and roles are emerging, and yesterday we got into a great – and heated – discussion with one of our professors about school fees. While I was staging a personal rebellion against passport photos, some Ghanaian students have been protesting hikes in tuition and fees at the University of Ghana.  Maybe there are more important things in life than passport photos…


8 thoughts on “Settling In & The Tyranny of Passport Photos

    • Hi David! I tried to get in touch with you and Denise before I left; sorry we missed each other! I am having a great time, yes, despite occasional bureaucratic headaches! I miss you all too!

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