Stranger in the Homeland:
by: Chaquanzha Stephenson
It was approximately 1:30am and I was awakened by the flashing of my television screen and the loud cry of a young child. I rubbed both of my eyes and began watching an infomercial called “Feed the Children.” I watched a man named Larry Jones walk around a village and capture live footage of impoverished families who reside there. The location of the village was in East Africa. Although I viewed this infomercial a couple of years ago, I remember every image I saw as if it were seen only hours ago. On that day, my perception of the entire African continent was constructed.
Until recently, Africa held little interest for me; it was not something worth hearing or talking about. What I did hear about the continent was usually from organizations or people trying to send money or supplies to the less fortunate adults and children. These things often conjured-up negative images.
When Dr. Antonio Henley suggested going to Ghana in our proposal writing class, my hand shot up with interest before he could finish his sentence. After class, although he said we are not signing on the dotted line, I had a bittersweet feeling. I really wanted to go, but I was fearful to move forward with it. I called my mom and asked her about it and she said it would be an awesome experience, but we would have to take care of all the necessary vaccines and know the logistics before fully committing to participate. I found myself asking around to get other opinions, but I would not take the time to research for myself. The only time I researched was when I got online to look up the University of Ghana and its surrounding area a few days before departing. Other than that, I went around asking people if they would go, if they thought I should go, and if they knew anyone who went.
I spent a great deal of time speaking with Caitlin Vaughan at the Center for the Humanities because she had been to Ghana twice. I thought she would be the most suitable person to talk to. She asked what I was nervous about and how she could help me. I told her about all the things I had heard. I had heard that the country was very nasty and underdeveloped. I was told I was sure to pick up at least one disease before I returned to the U.S. And, I explained that I had never personally heard anything good about Africa. I also shared that my friends and family added to the negativity. They were anxious and did not want me to make the journey. They were afraid that I might pick up some disease and concerned that I would not survive the full two months. Because my family was worried, I was a mess emotionally and I needed confirmation that everything would be okay.
On June 11, 2011, as I left the University of New Hampshire campus, toward Boston to board the twelve-hour flight to Accra, Ghana, I said a prayer. I wanted to be covered and protected from all hurt, harm, and danger. To be honest, going to Ghana did not excite me. As I boarded the plane, took my seat, and followed the directions of the flight attendant, I said one last prayer. The plane took-off and my fellow McNair cohort, Dr. Henley, and I were on our way to Ghana!
Upon landing, the pilot informed us of how hot it was and that it was raining. I thought to myself, “Great, there is nothing worse than being hot and wet.” We made it through customs, retrieved our luggage, and exchanged our U.S. dollars for Ghanaian Cedi. When we walked outside to the University of Ghana bus to be transported with another group, the hustling began. I use the term “hustling” because the men who were loading our luggage onto the bus were in our faces asking “What did you get for me?” One guy asked me for a flashlight, others asked for money. Since we learned about this practice by some of the people in our pre-departure meeting, we knew how to handle the situation – just walk away.
When we pulled up in front of the International Student Hostel (ISH), I said “Okay, this isn’t too bad.” We all checked in, received our room keys and went to explore. While I knew that I was no longer in the U.S., I did not feel as if I were in Africa. I unpacked a few of my belongings and had to leave the Hostel for the Aya Center orientation. At the Aya Center we were welcomed by Professor Michael Williams. We were then given additional safety precautions to follow. As the days and weeks went on, I saw more and experienced culture shock.
While I saw some things that I expected, I also saw things that I did not expect. To illustrate this point, I did not expect to see luxurious cars such as BMWs, Range Rovers, and Mercedes Benz. I had anticipated seeing old cars that were rusted and noisy. I also did not think it likely to see houses in gated communities with security in front, the type of homes you would normally see in a rich area in the U.S. I could not believe my eyes. I was not expecting Ghana to be as developed as it is.
On the other hand, just as in any other country there are good and bad areas, I also had a chance to see the poor, rundown homes. When our group traveled on excursions, I saw small homes with clothes hanging out to dry. I do not know how the homes were built, but they were small with either tin or dried leaves for a roof. On some level, seeing this was expected.
Historical Significance –
In Ghana, I was able to see many historical sites, such as the slave castles. We visited the Elmina Castle and the Cape Coast Castle. The castle at Elmina was my favorite. The tour provided more information and many of the museum artifacts were kept in their original state. For example, the castle floors at Elmina were the same floors on which the slaves talked, ate, walked, and died. The staff cleaned them well before the grounds were made a tourist site. The experience though was moving for me, and I am now able to say that I walked on the very floors on which my ancestors walked and died. In fact, during the tour of each castle we stood in a room for less than fifteen minutes, and I was quite hot. Not to mention, we toured the castle in Ghana’s rainy season. So, I can only imagine the temperature in the castles when Ghana was in its dry season under the brutal conditions of slavery.
Retreat Away –
A week later, we went to Ada Foah and spent the night in a hut at the Maranatha Beach Camp, which sits on a parcel of land in between the Volta River Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. I was able to live like the locals there for a night, but I did not wash in the river nor did I have to cook my own food. So, I did not really live like the locals, but I slept in the same hut that they slept in and I can brag about that! On the island we sat at a bonfire and watched the locals perform traditional songs and dances on the beach. We also walked along the beachfront to find where the river estuary met the ocean. Words cannot explain how amazing the water was! The current would wash up and then wash back so the waters did not mix, or so it seemed. I do not know how it works; I only know it was amazing and gorgeous, and I was astonished by the spectacle of nature. It was a wonderful trip.
Seat of the Kingdom –
Our next excursion was an extended trip to the Kumasi Region, which is considered the cultural capital of Ghana. In Kumasi we visited the Kente Village. I was in total awe. I could not believe that such clothing designs were done by men, with their hands. Nothing was produced using electricity. Everything was done by hand, with a handmade wooden machine. It was unbelievable. I managed to buy two Kente cloth ties!
We also toured the home of the first Ashanti King, which is now a museum. This site was informative as well. I love the fact that the traditions of the royal family is to all wear gold. My favorite part of the tour was the last room, in which sat a statue of a women named Nana Yaa Asantewaa. In the year 1900 she led the Ashanti rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool against British colonialism. It is believed that she led close to 1200 troops and stymied the British incursion. She made me proud to be an African American woman.
Rejuvenating Falls –
Our final excursion was to the Wli Fall in the Volta Region. This trip was very refreshing. We visited the monkey sanctuary and fed them bananas. We later hiked for about forty-five minutes until we reached the waterfall. I was hot and a little sweaty from the hike, but once at the waterfall, the mist from the water dropping into the pool refreshed me and made me forget about the hike it took to get there.
Market Conditions –
In addition to all of the enlightening excursions, we also visited the markets, which were full of vendors, who were usually selling the same type of products and did not appear to be making any money. I did not like the markets because you would hear hissing or someone saying “come my sister, I will give you nice price.” God forbid I turn my head to walk away; I would be grabbed or told how rude I am. One man actually said to me, “This is not America, in Ghana everyone loves everyone.” However, my overall experience of visiting the sites was great. We saw a great deal more than what I have discussed, but the items I have shared were my most memorable experiences.
To summarize, I will compare and contrast what I thought I would see in Ghana to what I actually saw; there is a significant difference. Ghana is more developed than I imagined. This is my opinion and may not be considered valid by some because of the location where I lived during my two-month stay: East Legon in the Accra Region, which is a wealthy area. While in Ghana, I did not get sick as I thought I would. No one did physical or bodily harm to me, or anyone in my group. And, everyone in my group, including me, returned home safe and sound. These facts represent the negative assumptions upon which my pre-departure fears were built.
(The only bad experience I had in Ghana was harassment by men. I was constantly pulled to the side and asked for my number or contact information. On numerous occasions a man would ask, “So when will I see you again.” Each time it happened, I rarely knew what to say. I eventually started to ignore the comments and walk away.)
However, to the point of my expectations, I did not see big belly children with flies swarming around them. I did not see people riding animals for transportation. And, quite importantly, people were nowhere close to being naked. Most were well dressed with creased pants, ironed collared shirts, and nice dress shoes. This was their normal attire if they were not in their traditional wear. I was amazed! (And, I wondered what they would call dressing-up. All I wanted to wear was a t-shirt and shorts to keep from burning-up in the heat. I guess they are used to the temperature.)
In addition, there are the conflicted questions because life there seems so simple for so many. When I saw children with smiles on their faces, I would ask myself, “How could they be so happy?” One day I realized that they cannot miss what they did not have. If they never had a light switch to flip, a faucet to run, a stovetop to cook, a toilet in a bathroom, or even a bed on which to sleep, then they cannot miss these modern luxuries. Because I spent nineteen years of my life flipping on lights, using a toilet, turning a water faucet, sleeping in a bed, driving in a car, watching television, using the internet, and going to school, I cannot easily cope with their lifestyle. On the other hand, I am sure they would be able to cope with mine. Going to Ghana made me realize not only how blessed I am, but that I complain too much. If the power goes out, or my phone fails, or my computer dies, or my car needs to be fixed, I complain. I needed to see how fortunate I am to have these things in order to realize that I am ungrateful at times. All in all, we live to learn, and I learned more than a thing or two! Thank-you Ghana!
I would love to explain everything I learned and experienced, but my words will never be enough. The experience that I had in Ghana was a once in a lifetime experience. I plan to go back when I have the financial means to do so. For now, I reminisce and try to relive the moments I had through the photographs that I have. If I had one recommendation, it would be to save all the money you can and make anywhere in Africa your next trip.
I cannot recall, from those early stages of my development, hearing anything good from people who had visited or people who are from the continent of Africa, which really makes me sad. I am saddened because the way things are publicized does not engender people to want to explore the continent for themselves. One of the first times I heard someone make a positive comment about the African continent was when I was in my information session getting ready for my research abroad trip.
Because I had not heard anything nice about Africa, the only vision that would come to mind was the “Feed the Children” infomercial, which was not a pleasant image. All of these negative impressions added to my fears and beliefs about Africa. In all honesty, I expected to see dirty people begging for money without proper clothing. I also thought I would see naked children with big bellies and flies swarming them. And, I even expected to see people riding animals as a form of transportation. Wow! I was wrong. My entire impression of Ghana was something completely different than what I experienced. Because I mistakenly generalized the continent, I failed to realize that poverty exists in every country. My perception may have been accurate many years ago, but in 2011 Ghana far exceeded my expectations.