Going Back: A Ghanaian-American volunteering in Ghana
This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer in Ghana for eight weeks with The Anidaso Nsae Foundation. I was excited for the work I would be doing (working at a local clinic and volunteering at an orphanage), but this experience also gave me the chance to connect with my roots. Both of my parents were born in Ghana and immigrated to America for better opportunities. We were only able to visit Ghana once as a family when I was four years old. I was way too young to remember anything that I could refer back to. Things like the smell in the air, the looks on faces, the music playing on radios, the stars in the sky – the real tangible things that catch you at random times and force you to think back. In my middle school and high school days, I would think about going back ALL of the time. The eight weeks meant a lot to me. I learned a lot, but here I have boiled it down to 8 lessons.
1. For some reason, skin tone matters. When most black people think about going to Africa, they relish in the idea of being surrounded by people who look just like you. Don’t get me wrong, having brown skin in a sea of brown skin is something powerful. But just as colorism can be defining factor in a group of black people in America, the same exists in Ghana. I experienced this in my first couple days. I was staying in Accra until I moved to my volunteer placement. Some kids who came around the house could not believe I was so dark. They thought because I was born in America, I should be light. They caught me putting on lotion and said “so this will make you light?” I told them, to their disappointment, that it was just regular old lotion. I know right? I was seriously hurt. A ‘light is right’ mentality exists within every group of people that isn’t white, but it is always hard experiencing it in person.
2. The mother tongue thing. When I told l people my parents are Ghanaian, they would say “wo ye Ghana ni, enti wo timi khan Twi?” – aye you are Ghanaian, so can you speak Twi? Twi is one of the many languages spoken in Ghana, and the language that both of the tribes my parents originate from speak. Unfortunately, I could only respond to these inquires with “kitwe bi” – a little. I got many responses. Some would be offended, some would curse my parents for not teaching me my culture, and some would encourage me to learn. Although I preferred the latter response, any time I was confronted with the mother tongue question I felt ostracized. It just made me even more aware of how estranged I was from my own culture. It seemed like I was doing a lot to get acquainted -- I mean spending two months dedicated to service for the country seems like a lot to me -- but it would never be enough to be fully accepted.
3. Confronting assumptions head on. One of the cool parts of my time was that I lived in a house with volunteers from around the world. I met people from Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, etc… so I was living within a convergence of culture. Add this to the convergence of culture we all faced as we worked in the local clinic, and you get a perfect recipe for interesting dinner conversations. Because I grew up around some of the culture we experienced every day in my family home, I was able to speak up when people made assumptions.
4. Showing Africa in its totality. So I know that, for a while, all we saw of Africa was the malnourished kids on TV that almost brought tears to our eyes. Now there is a big push to show all of the nice places that exist in Africa. This is cool, and is needed. I saw some spectacular places in my time in Ghana, and I am sure those are not what most people think about when they picture the country. When you think about it, rich people exist everywhere. Of course there are going to be nice places! I think instead of the focus on being how nice Africa can be, there needs to be a focus on getting a complete picture. The nice places are just minutes from people living in squalor. The nicest buildings can be surrounded by trash and you have to pass people begging for money to get to them. These details are often left out. It’s just like when people come to America expecting to see golden roads. We must gravitate to accurate depictions to avoid misrepresentation.
5. Men oh man. The Ghanaian men I interacted with did not prescribe themselves to the extreme masculinity as some of the men in America do. Men will openly hug, dance with, or hold hands with their male friends. Ghanaian men are also… persistent when they want something. It was kinda like the guy who wants your number at a club, but on steroids. Some may ask for your number right after asking your name, some may ask you to marry them, it all just depends on the day. This helped me distinguish the men with good intentions. When you have a good conversation with someone and they don’t ask you if you have WhatsApp or if they can add you on Facebook, it makes you appreciate them so much more.
6. Voluntourism’s effects on resorts. During the weekends of my trip, I was able to travel to different locations in Ghana. At first, I really loved these places. I was like “omg my culture” and would get trapped into buying overpriced souvenirs. In my last trip, however, I realized the warped perception these resorts made of Ghana. They allow you to see Ghana, but at your own comfort. Because I had to stretch beyond my comfort zone in the village where I worked to participate in this culture, the experience at a resort just seemed watered down and fake to me. In my last trip, I was also the only black person in the group that traveled. When we got to the resort, some thought I was the “guide” of the group. I could understand this assumption, most volunteers at my placement would ask someone from the local staff to travel with them during weekends. It makes negotiating prices and getting directions a lot easier. I wasn’t offended. This made me realize the need for black people to go back to Africa and uplift it. Especially college students. I know it seems like you won’t be able to afford it, but the grants are out there! There has to be a shift in the view of what a traveler can be so volunteer programs and resorts can be less white washed. It is our land, so we should enjoy it!
7. Realizing the systems at play. I was mesmerized by the beauty of Ghana. It has great people, beautiful sights, and plentiful resources- all these combined should make it a thriving a country. However, living within these elements for two months allowed me to empathize with the real situation of those around me. Although there are a lot of government funded schools, there are still fees that leave many unable to go to school. If you are lucky enough to go to school, you have to learn in a foreign language. Without full understanding of the language, many children just memorize the answers they need to pass or copy from others. And after you finish school, the options are slim. There aren’t a lot of part-time jobs available for youth. The choice becomes to either learn a trade or go to college, both of which require money; that many don’t have. Lacking money leaves the youth to become spectators to the ever-advancing world around them, which they see on their Facebook feeds every day.
8. Everywhere has its problems. All in all, although I enjoyed the slower paced life and strong community that my time in Ghana offered me, I realized there that everywhere has its problems. I actually didn’t come to this realization, though; someone told me this in a conversation. This person wanted to move to Hollywood. I noted things like how it is expensive to live- especially in California- and the trouble that comes with being a minority. He then spoke about the problems Ghanaians face every day with the lack of opportunities. Ultimately the best and the worst can come from a single place, and the opportunities available to the person in that place can define it for them.