Gothic House - Oguaa Traditional Palace



Chief Imam, Cape Coast's Zongo District

AAS 403Z ~ Community as Classroom:
Urban Studies and Service Learning in Cape Coast, Ghana

Dec. 27, 2008 - Jan. 9, 2009
(including travel days)

Instructor: Scot French
Research Associate: Gina Haney

Application Deadline: Wednesday, Oct. 1
Full Payment Due: Saturday, Oct. 18

Questions? Contact Prof. French at
or Study Abroad Advisor Mary Jo Bateman at

About the Program | Cape Coast's Multi-Layered History
Community-Based Projects | Program Directors & Teaching Faculty

Housing/Meals | Application Procedure & Program Deadlines
| Tuition & Fees

Fishing boats next to Cape Coast Castle


Sandals for sale outside Mosque.

About the Program

This interdisciplinary J-Term course is designed to teach students how to “read” the presence of the past in urban cultural and physical landscapes. Students are introduced to the multi-layered history of Cape Coast, from its origin as a Fante settlement to its establishment as a European trading center on Africa’s “Gold Coast” in the seventeenth century, through the eras of slavery and abolition, colonial rule and independence. While on site, students work on various service-learning projects that assist community leaders in achieving their goals within a larger framework of conservation and economic development.

For students interested in urban studies and service learning within the historical, political, and cultural context of West Africa, this course offers numerous opportunities for learning experiences outside the traditional classroom setting:

  • listening to a tourist-oriented history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as told from an African perspective, while standing in the slave dungeons of Cape Coast Castle;
  • learning the rules and rituals of Fante governance from leaders of the Oguaa Traditional Council;
  • talking to shopkeepers in open-air markets, including those benefiting from micro-economic loans;
  • touring the 19th century homes and burial sites of local heroes who fought for native land rights during the era of British colonial rule;
  • navigating the Canopy Walk at Kakum National Park while learning about Ghana's efforts to conserve its natural environment;
  • interpreting, with the help of local residents, the symbolically adorned Asafo military company shrines that dot the urban landscapes of Cape Coast and Elmina;
  • and, in 2009, accepting a special invitation from the Chief Imam of Ghana's Central Region to work with Cape Coast's Islamic community on public works projects within the ethnic and religious enclave known as the "Zongo."

These field learning experiences will be complemented by assigned readings, lectures, and group discussions.

The course will be taught in a seminar/workshop format with a majority of the time spent in the community with residents of Cape Coast. Students will be graded on class participation/community engagement (30%), field journals (30%), oral presentation of proposed service learning projects (10%), and final presentation of projects to community stakeholders and other interested parties (30%).

Sponsored by The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, with technical support from the Robertson Media Center's Digital Media Lab and the Virginia Center for Digital History, this cross-disciplinary J-term program targets undergraduates whose research interests focus on discerning cultural patterns and deciphering expressions of change in the built, natural, and social environments. 

The course and its associated service learning projects will build upon the Conservation and Tourism Development Plan for Cape Coast, developed by community stakeholders and implemented over the past nine years.

For an introduction to the program, including the reflections of an AAS/Psychology double major who participated last year, follow the link to this item in the Carter G. Woodson Institute Newsletter.

For historical background and a slide show on last year's program, follow the link to this U.Va. Today news article.

Cape Coast's Multi-Layered History

The course will unfold within the diverse historical and cultural contexts of Cape Coast, from its origins as a Fante settlement to its establishment as a European trading center on Africa's "Gold Coast" in the seventeenth century, through the eras of slavery and abolition, colonial rule and independence.

Cape Coast Castle - click for panoramic view


The physical presence of Cape Coast Castle, one of dozens of European-built forts and castles from the slave trade era that still dot the West African coastline, looms large over the historical landscape. In The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, historian William St. Clair writes that the Castle "was the headquarters in Africa of the entire British involvement in the slave trade. For 143 years (1664-1807), it was, in the words of one of its British governors, the grand emporium of the British slave trade. From this building perched on the shore of the South Atlantic Ocean, men, women, and children born in Africa were sold to British slave ships and carried to the West Indies, to North and South America, and to destinations elsewhere.... The Castle today is well preserved, partially restored, and excellently presented, with an informative museum. Along with other castles and forts in Ghana, it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site."

But there is much more to Cape Coast than its world-famous castle. In 2000, the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) organized a design & planning workshop, cosponsored by Conservation International and the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for conservation and tourism development for Cape Coast, Ghana. "For many years," the conferees wrote,

the Castle has served as an educational resource, a role being significantly extended and enhanced under the present Natural Resource Conservation and Historic Preservation Project.... But the town that has grown up over the past three years outside the walls of the Castle has hardly begun to be exploited as an educational resource. Still less has the historic core of the town been explored as an economic resource, despite its potential for economic regeneration as a major tourist venue -- comparable with Mombasa in Kenya, Goa in India, Cartagena in Colombia -- providing hotels, guest houses, restaurants, bars, museums, shops, craft workshops, artists' studios, and a whole range of cultural, commercial and recreational facilities. Individual historic buildings, groups of buildings, public and private open spaces within and around groups of buildings, are capable of adaptation for one or another of the above uses.

Downtown Cape Coast Castle - click for panoramic view


Community-Based Service Learning Projects

All of the community-based service learning projects planned for this J-Term course draw inspiration from the Conservation & Tourism Development Plan developed by participants in the Cape Coast Design Workshop. Indeed, the digitized portions of the plan made available through the Cape Coast Archive are required reading for all participants.

Programming Space for Renovated
Gothic House/Oguaa Traditional Palace

Last year, for example, students worked with community leaders to produce a plan for the adaptive reuse of Gothic House (right) with an eye toward international fundraising. Gothic House was built by James Dawson as his main residence and trading establishment around 1815. Occupied until recently by various municipal government departments and non-governmental organizations, the now-vacant complex is slated to become the headquarters for the Oguaa Traditional Council and official residence for the traditional chief of Cape Coast).


Walking Tour Itineraries for Asafo Shrines

Students also worked with Asafo company leaders and other community stakeholders to document Cape Coast's Fante military company shrines and produce visual guides/walking tour itineraries. At right, students present the results of their research to the paramount chief and other members of the Traditional Council at closing ceremonies in the Heritage House.


Site Documentation and
Community Service in the Zongo

This year, students will focus on site documentation and community-centered public works projects in the Islamic neighborhood of Cape Coast, known as the Zongo. This is a complex subject with great opportunities for comparative research. At right, students meet with the Chief Imam and his family outside their home.


Program Directors & Teaching Faculty

  • Program Director Scot A. French, Associate Professor, Department of History, specializes in the study of collective memory and the presence of the past in urban landscapes. From 2002 to 2006, he co-taught AAS 101: Africa in the Atlantic World, an introductory survey course that explores the origins and development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the perspective of Africa and its people. Historical in focus, the course also dealt with contemporary debates over the meaning and memory of the slave trade as interpreted through the “slave castles” of Elmina and Cape Coast. He has worked closely with Architecture Prof. Maurice Cox and Research Associate Gina Haney (pictured below) on the development of the J-Term Ghana program and curriculum. This is the second year the course has been offered.

  • Research Associate Gina Haney is an architectural historian specializing in community-based urban planning. From 1998 to 2000 she coordinated the historic preservation component of the Central Region Project in Cape Coast for US/ICOMOS, a program that received broad recognition and regional awards. In 2000, US/ICOMOS organized a design & planning workshop, cosponsored by Conservation International and the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for conservation and tourism development for Cape Coast, Ghana. Both Haney and Maurice Cox participated in the design and planning charrettes. In 2006, through a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Haney and US/ICOMOS Intern Theresa Coolahan travelled to Cape Coast to make a follow-up assessment on the recomendations that derived from the workshop.  As a result of her extended stays in Cape Coast, Haney has numerous local contacts who will be available to assist and guide student work.

Scot French and Maurice Cox in Jan. 2008

Gina Haney participates in ceremonial tree-planting along with community participants
in Cape Coast conservation project.


Students will be housed in western-style hotels/guest houses with restaurant service featuring Ghanaian cuisine.

Application Procedures & Program Deadlines

Students must complete the UVA Study Abroad application on-line at

Applications are due no later than October 1, 2008, but may be submitted on-line at any time prior to that date. Further application information is available on-line.

Important: Students must have a passport in hand (or application for one in process), valid through July 2009 (six months after return date), at time of application. This will ensure that there are no delays in processing applications for visas required to enter Ghana. The visa application fee is included in program cost. Students are also required to have a valid certificate of immunization for yellow fever for submission with visa application.

Key Dates:

Oct. 1: Study Abroad application and SFS priority financial aid application due.

Oct. 8: Notification of acceptance or waitlisting.

Oct. 9: Mandatory J-term meeting, time and place TBA.

Oct. 12: Financial aid awards announced by this date.

Oct. 14: Deadline for commitment to program

Oct. 15: Accepted students who have not committed by date this will be dropped and replaced with waitlisted students.

Oct. 18: Deadline for full payment.

Tuition & Fees / Financial Aid

Detail from
door handle
at Gothic House

In-state students: $5,065
Out-of-state: $5,380

Full program payment is due Oct. 18.

Price includes: Tuition for 3 credits, international airfare, visa application fee, MedEx Travel Assistance, accommodations and most meals.

Price does not include: Some meals, some local transportation, and personal expenses.

Financial aid is available for January term programs.

Application information is available at:

The SFS Priority deadline is Oct. 1, 2008. Students are encouraged to file their financial aid applications as far in advance of the deadline as possible to receive award notification prior to committing to the program.

Still photography and website design by Scot French.
Panoramic photos by Michael Tuite.