Giving, by Design


The professor gazed through the plate-glass windows of an air-conditioned bus. As she rolled past shantytowns bordering the narrow ribbon of pavement, she stared at the iced drink in her hands. “As visitors to Ghana, we were given anything we wanted,” recalls Gail Della-Piana, an associate professor of architecture and interior design at Miami. “It was embarrassing.”

The year was 1994, and Della-Piana was traveling on her first tour of Ghana with educators from several U.S. universities seeking connections with the country. After a televised interview with the president at a colonial castle and meetings with vice chancellors, the group members returned to their five-star hotel.

“The only Ghanaians we saw there were service workers,” Della-Piana relates. “And the guests, mostly business travelers, treated them badly.” Even a visit to the University of Ghana revealed a cynical history.

“It was not always the premier university that it is today,” Della-Piana says. “It had been established by the English not to educate people, but to train exceptionally bright Ghanaians to be in charge of other Ghanaians — to get the gold out of the gold mines and get the cocoa packaged up.”

After the five-day tour ended, the Miami professor stayed on with a student’s family to explore rural villages. It was here that she truly met the people and found the connections she was seeking.

“That’s when I fell in love with Ghana. Ghanaians have a generosity of spirit that I felt we had forgotten. They have nothing but will share anything. I knew there were lessons there that could really benefit our students.”

During the tour and subsequent two weeks in the rural countryside, Della-Piana formed a conviction.

“Any project we created could not just be about ‘taking’ from Ghana — even if it was the taking of knowledge. We had to find a way to give back.”



Over the next two years, she led two student groups to Ghana, the first working with Habitat for Humanity and the second on research projects and service to individual families. But it was a colleague, professor Nii-Adziri Wellington of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, who provided the providential link.

“Professor Wellington introduced me to an incredible woman named Hagar, a community leader in the neighboring villages of Abrafo-Odumase and a forester at nearby Kakum National Forest. Hagar and I have been friends ever since.”

Through Hagar, Della-Piana met with village chiefs. Upon their allotment of an acre of land for Miami’s first project, the professor found her own way to “give back.”

Ghana Design/Build, the resulting program founded by Della-Piana, remains the longest running summer studio workshop in the department of architecture and interior design. Since 1998, interdisciplinary teams of Miami students have completed nine buildings — including a children’s library, a marketplace, a community center, and in 2008, a computer facility.

To prepare for their six weeks in the West African country, students attend a series of classes about its culture, language, and politics. Upon arrival, they visit Abrafo-Odumase and are introduced at an “opening ceremony.” Before embarking on a two-week tour of the country, students sketch the future job site. While on the road, they create multiple designs.

In Ghana there is no bureaucracy. Our building permit is a pick and a shovel.

“Once we get the go-ahead from the chiefs, we just start building,” says J.E. Elliott, professor of architecture and interior design, who has served as the faculty sponsor since 2006. “There is no bureaucracy. Our building permit is a pick and a shovel.”

Typically, 12 villagers — skilled carpenters, masons, and laborers — are hired to work alongside the Miami students, teaching them indigenous methods.

“There are no power tools,” Elliott explains. “Everything is done by hand, including the blocks. We get the stone, the sand, buy bags of cement, and start mixing.”

“Yes,” agrees Della-Piana, “in Abrafo-Odumase, the people are the cement mixers.”

The professor recalls a village woman who helped the crew. “She looked as old as God,” Della-Piana says. “But she’d carry a head pan filled with concrete and work with us. We didn’t speak the same language, but in our hearts we were connected.”

Students embrace the tough work, often made tougher by the baking heat, dust storms, and torrential rains. Della-Piana believes that their passion keeps them going. A sense of humor helps, too.

“When you’re digging a hole in the rainy season, the hole naturally fills with water,” she says. “I remember one student who was down there bailing water, and she called up to me, ‘To think that I paid money to do this for credit.’ But her face was beaming.”

Adam Nelson earned a master’s degree in architecture in 2008. One of his primary reasons for choosing Miami for graduate work was his desire to participate in Ghana Design/ Build.

“Part of the power of the Ghana program,” Nelson asserts, “is that by returning to the same villages year after year, students can study how earlier structures wear, and how they have been used. We also benefit from a built-in acceptance of each other.

“During our preparatory classes, I realized what we had was an oral history,” he continues. “As the years were getting on, much was getting lost, and that concerned me.”

Determined to record the project’s evolution, he chose an independent study to produce a book of photographs and writings that illustrate the history of the studio.

Nelson also included a “picture project” in his book that allowed the children of Abrafo-Odumase to tell their own story. Passing out 10 disposable cameras, he gave them a simple assignment: “Snap pictures of what’s important to you and give the pictures titles.” Entries such as “My mother is washing cassava,” “This is my sheep,” and “A teacher teaching in a classroom” fill the pages.

As he thumbs through Nelson’s book to point out the faces of Ghanaian friends, Elliott explains that he first accompanied the group to Ghana in 2005. Asked how he came to assume leadership a year later, he speaks with characteristic candor.

“Gail suckered me into it. I don’t know if she was in cahoots with the village to arrange this, but the village made me a chief that first year. I suspect that she baited the hook, and they sunk it.”

“I’m so glad that J. is willing to keep the program alive,” Della-Piana says. “People love him in the village, and so do the students.”

Elliott admits that he initially found the prospect of continuing the founder’s work daunting.

“The first time I walked into the village with Gail, it was like walking with royalty,” he says. “Everybody knew her. As we walked along, I realized that she had helped this family; she had helped that family. Actually, it was pretty intimidating. I knew I could never do it like she did. Nobody can. But then I came to grips with the fact there are other things I can offer and will do.”

After 45 years of teaching, including 20 at Miami, Della-Piana retires at the end of the 2009 spring semester. Now in her fifth year of working in another service-learning project with the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma, she leaves a living legacy in a Native American community, a Ghanaian village, and in the hearts and minds of her students.

One of those students is architecture major and 2008 Ghana Design/ Build student Michael Lawrence ’09. He believes his experience with Ghanaian culture allowed him to gain a deeper insight into his own.

“The people in that village literally have nothing,” he says. “If it rains really hard, the side of their house washes away. Food spoils, and they lose it all. But through all of this, the way in which Ghanaians treat each other is far and away so much kinder, so much more respectful, than it is in America. It sounds cliché — that material possessions have spoiled us — but I believe it is true.”

Community partnership coordinator for Miami’s Office of Community Engagement and Service, Laura Smith ’07 accompanied the summer 2008 group as an observer and shares an online blog and videos of her experience.

“At first, the students thought that they themselves were the only ones getting something out of this,” she says. “But they came to understand that they were giving something, too. That’s why this program is the perfect example of service learning. It is global engagement at its core. It is everything that Miami University aspires to be.”

Della-Piana lets her eyes rest upon the village photographs crowding her office wall.

“I’m certain I will return to Ghana one day,” she says with a smile well-known to students, colleagues, and the people of Abrafo-Odumase. “I have a family of friends there, just as I do here at Miami.”

Photography courtesy of Adam C Nelson. Photos marked (O) courtesy of J.E. Elliott.