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Student Profile

Music, Medicine, and Mampong

Ben Wilson

I don’t know what came over me in late 2003, but I suddenly had a strong urge to have an international experience, particularly in Africa. After a few clicks of the mouse on BYU’s International Study Programs web site, I discovered a medical anthropology field study program to Ghana, West Africa. Though I knew almost nothing about anthropology, and an old desire to go into medicine had long since been abandoned, I knew the Ghana field study was exactly what I wanted to do.

Soon I learned that our group would spend about three months in the town of Mampong, visiting both hospitals and traditional healers. Within that context, I decided to focus my research project on one of my loves—music. After a semester of background research, I was excited to head to Mampong and explore the role of drumming in traditional healing ceremonies.

One of the first things I noticed about the Ghanaian people was how happy, friendly, and giving they were. I remember first meeting the family of the healer in the village of Nyinampong. They were not financially well-off, but without hesitation they greeted us with smiles and invited us into their home and offered us food. Their kindness was quite a contrast to the more apathetic Western culture I had grown up in.

Our field study group (from the left: Tyler, Eric, Jake, Kevin, and me) with our guide, Albert, at Mole National Park. Three of us from this group are going into medicine.

Ghanaian culture also came with a few quirks. Once, as I was waiting at a trotro (bus) station, a man came up and asked if he could have one of the cookies I was holding. After I handed one to him, a nearby woman gasped and looked at me in disgust. “What in the world did I do?” I thought. Only then did I remember the important fact about Ghanaian culture that it is inappropriate to give with the left hand. Because I wasn’t in tune with the culture, an act I thought was kind ended up being insulting.

One doctor I met, Dr. Jectey, was in tune with Ghanaian culture, and, as a result, he was a very effective physician. He understood well the financial circumstances, religious beliefs, and other aspects of life in Ghana (like not giving a prescription with his left hand), so his patients loved and trusted him. I learned from Dr. Jectey the importance of valuing the unique cultural and personal characteristics of the people with whom I do and will work.

My experiences in Ghana affected me personally in a way beyond what I had expected. After weeks of walking dirt roads, visiting hospitals, shopping in markets, and visiting traditional healers, I came to love the Ghanaian people—their genuine friendliness, their love for life, their deep gratitude. Ghana felt like home. I not only developed tolerance for cultural differences, but I came to love the diversity.

Trotro stations often have various vendors selling fruit, bread, and snacks. Riding for hours on a trotro on a hot day with a herd of goats on the roof ended up being a really bad idea. (You can imagine why!)

Ghana also had a big impact on me academically. By the end of the field study, I had made valuable observations on the drumming used in traditional healing ceremonies. I was excited to have discovered something that no one else in the world knew. And I actually enjoyed writing my findings in a research paper. Since I wanted to share what I had learned, I submitted my research for publication. Much to my surprise, my work was accepted and published in the Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology in late 2005.

I’m not sure whether it was the hours in the Mampong hospital children’s ward or the good conversations I had with my pre-med colleagues, but after being in Ghana, my interest in a medical career re-surfaced. In the few short years following Ghana, I jammed in all my pre-med coursework and MCAT preparation. Before I knew it, I was applying for medical school.

It’s fairly well known that pre-meds are some of the most insanely competitive people in existence. Getting into medical school nowadays requires so much more than a high GPA and a good MCAT score. Although initially going to Ghana had almost nothing to do with going to medical school, my Ghana field study ended up being the key to my getting accepted into a quality medical school. I had done original research and published it—not a very typical accomplishment for an undergraduate student. I had also gained an extra-cultural awareness that is imperative for success as a physician in our increasingly diverse country. One of my medical school interviewers told me that after reading my research paper, he wasn’t sure if I was Caucasian. He felt I had shown my ability to step outside my own culture.

Yam sellers at the market in Mampong. On market day, venders from all the villages near Mampong come together to buy and sell their goods.

I consider my experiences in Ghana the most significant of my undergraduate education. My decision to go to Ghana was an impulse that helped me develop personally and led me to pursue a career in medicine. Ironically, Ghana was also the key that opened the door to medical school.

I enjoy reminiscing about Ghana with the good friends I made within my field study group, and I look forward to contact with them as our lives progress. Three of those friends are also pursuing careers in medicine, one of whom I joined at the University of Utah School of Medicine this fall. I will always be grateful to BYU International Study Programs for providing experiences that have led me to such extraordinary opportunities as I begin medical school at the University of Utah.