A group of students on the MV World Odyssey sat in the dining room, hunched over their lunches and chattering casually. It was a pretty normal afternoon, and the air was generally
pleasant. But the mood shifted when one student, Sabrina Smith, opened an email and looked up with a strange look on her face. “Guys”, she said to the group. “There was a just a terrorist attack in Ivory Coast. That’s right next to Ghana.”
On the morning of March 13, a group of armed Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists stormed three beach resort hotels in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, a firing attack that left 16 dead. It was a Sunday—the day when the resorts, popular among Westerners, are usually at their most crowded. The beaches were only a few hundred miles down the coast from the Ghanaian port where Semester at Sea was scheduled to arrive on Easter Sunday.
Immediately after word of the attack began to circulate, students began to panic. There had already been a deadly terrorist attack on luxury hotels in Burkina Faso, another neighbor of Ghana, in January, and news of another similar attack taking place in such close proximity to the country seemed like more than enough cause to worry.
“After hearing about what happened, you had to worry,” Smith said. “It’s a neighboring country. It didn’t seem safe.”
Smith added that in addition to general risk in the area, Semester at Sea was poised to be an easy target for the kinds of Islamist terrorist organizations who had perpetrated the attacks.
“We’re literally a floating target,” she said. “A lot of terrorist organizations would be able to make a really big statement by killing 600 Christian, white, Western students. And it was Easter Sunday, so that would be an even bigger statement.”
As the ship was en route to Ghana, another terrorist attack hit, this time in an airport in Brussels, Belgium. While not in the immediate area in which they were heading, the attack caused the pre-existing terrorism concerns to deepen among the student population. Rumors began to circulate that the ship would be re-routed. Most doubted that the ship would actually stop in Ghana, and suggestions were made that places like Namibia, or even Spain, would replace it on the program’s itinerary.
Yet come Easter, the MV World Odyssey was docked in Takoradi harbor. Executive Dean John Tymitz said that despite the rumors, there was never any uncertainly that it would be.
“We never had any doubt we were going, based on the reports we had,” Tymitz said.
Tymitz, along with Semester at Sea’s home office, carefully monitors the situation in each port city. The ports are vetted before every voyage, and every year a representative from the office meets with the State Department’s Overseas Safety Association Council (OSAC) to receive updates about hot spots and areas of the world that might be of concern.
“It’s a constant vigilance thing on our part,” Tymitz said, “It’s a constant discussion in the home office, and we have people responsible for checking the conditions in each country, both while we plan the itinerary and during the entire time the ship is at sea.”
While at sea, the US State Department sends regular email updates. Tymitz also receives updates from British sources, and the ship’s Captain occasionally gets reports from other countries such as Australia or Italy. As the ship approached Ghana, there were no indications from these reports that travel to the country should be avoided.
“What came in from Ghana was ‘be careful of public areas, stay out of five star hotels, remain vigilant in all of your travels in and around the country’, but there were no specific threats,” Tymitz said.
If there were a case in which the State Department issued a warning that directly cautioned against ‘unnecessary travel’ to a particular country, Tymitz added, the port would likely be cancelled. It has happened on Semester at Sea before. In 2012, the Department advised the ship not to port in Morocco following recent terrorist activity. The warning was headed, and the ship sailed to the Canary Islands instead. No such cautionary report was given for Ghana, however.
“They’re not planning on issuing a civilian warning here,” John Hackmann, an intern with the US Embassy in Accra, said. “They’ve had no additional things besides that the military stopped sending people here. But they’re a separate entity from the State Department anyway.”
While Hackmann, who is currently living in Accra, did note that there has been an increase in security around hotels, beaches, and other places Westerners would go since the recent attacks, he maintained that the country is safe.
“I think that Ghana is just as secure as every other place in the world,” he said. “I mean, no matter where you go, there’s something happening in terrorism. Look at the United States. They’ve had more than a lot of countries have.”
Kobby Nemo, a Ghanaian business owner, was equally sure about the country’s safety.
“In West Africa, Ghana is the safest country,” he said. “We’ve never had any civil wars, nothing like that. Ghana is really, really safe.”
The country, which is 71% Christian, has never experienced an Islamist terrorist attack. Nemo said that it is unlikely to be the target of one.
“Nothing like that is going to happen here, there’s never been something out here,” he said. “I’m not afraid of violence at all.”
As Nemo would have guessed, no terrorist activity was reported in Ghana throughout the course of Semester at Sea’s five-day visit. All of the students who got off of the ship made it back safely, including those who went to beach hotels much like the one’s that were attacked in Ghana’s bordering countries.
The voyage is not yet clear of potentially dangerous areas, however. The MV World Odyssey is currently sailing to Morocco, another contentious port in regard to terrorism concerns. Currently, there are no plans to change course.
“There isn’t any indication that we shouldn’t go to Morocco,” Dean Tymitz said.
But, as always, the Semester at Sea team will maintain constant vigilance, he said.