Thursday, October 6, 2011


So it's been almost a year since my trip. I wrote a creative piece for my writing class that's based on my experience in Ghana. Here it is...

Awkwaba is the word for welcome. I remember the first time I stepped on African soil. I did not have any sort of epiphany like I had fantasized so many times before. Instead, I was struck with the realities of the here and now.
I was sleep deprived, having traveled for more than thirty hours; I was hungry, having turned down the unappealing airport food, too heavy with emotion for an appetite; and I was lost with no one searching, having arrived ten hours behind schedule in the middle of the night. One look at my pale, ivory face, taxi drivers waiting outside the airport’s doors swarmed towards me like moths to a bulb. A rush of Ghanaian accents overwhelmed me, a cold slap in the face, a stark contrast to the humid air. “To the University of Ghana,” I said in the most un-American, confident voice I could muster.
There were billboards and some naïve part of me thought there wouldn’t be—that this was some exception to the marketing consumerism I had wanted to escape. I had only a backpack with me and I clenched it tight to my chest. My checked baggage had been lost; no surprise after five airports. The paved road had stopped and I felt my blood turn to fuel, igniting every limb. We drove in circles through the darkness of the night, the dirt roads making my vision blurry with the bounces.
He stopped the car and got out to speak with a guard at what looked like a checkpoint. From the backseat of the car I could hear the shadowed figures yelling in angry foreign tongues, staring and pointing to me. I had red ash all over my shirt from the seatbelt. Earlier, as I had reached for it I saw the cab driver’s look, as if the belt that belonged to his car was as foreign as my face. It was obvious the seatbelt had not been used for quite some time and I had regretted putting it on.
I should have been nervous, but my whole life had been yearning for this day, and nothing could make caution besiege me. I had been craving a thrill and I embraced wherever this cab would take me.

Time in America does not move at the same pace as Africa’s time. I was at the small market near campus buying a fresh pineapple when I realized the lack of walls. I would spend full days outside and even when I was indoors, I wasn’t completely confined. Buildings are designed in a way that brings the outside in, and the inside out. This openness to the outside world made clocks superfluous. Later, soon, sometime but never never. Time is slow and living is communal. Make eye contact, talk to strangers, hug strangers, share your story. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t completely shake my American ways—this urge to fold inward—but I surely tried.

“What is the name for purple,” Naima says in her English accent. Our professor looks at her funny and says, “what do you want to know?” eyebrows raised, the way they always are when we interrupt his lecture with our dominating questions. Naima looks at the printed handbook he’s made for us. It’s loosely bound and titled, “Introduction to Twi.” She holds it up and says, “Purple isn’t listed—how do you say purple?” I look at mine and I see the translations for black, white, red, blue, green and yellow. Our professor, in his raspy agitated voice says, “there is no name for purple.” “Well what do you call this color,” she says tugging at her purple dress that covers her thick coco skin. He tightens his posture, let’s out a sigh, and with an expression that suggests they don’t understand and they never will, he says, “…it’s a shade of blue.” He continues with his lesson, explaining how to conjugate verbs.
Race is social construct—something that has been instilled in my head in every diversity course, the gift of a liberal education. On the 1820 United States’ official census there were seven races identified: White, Black, Quadroon, Octaroon, Indian, Asian, and Chinese. Close your eyes and try to imagine the hate that must have existed. I heard Brazil recognizes sixty-sum races on their census, inheriting the Latin view of race. Race in the United States has always been used to impede identity, rather than elucidate it.
In Ghana I am an Obruni. The literal translation is “white man.” “Obruni, Obruni, Obruni” they would holler at me as I walked along the open-gutter streets. It was neither negative nor positively loaded—it just simply acknowledged what was blatantly obvious: I was a white foreigner on a beautiful black land.

It is estimated that about 12 million African slaves were captured and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. On the reunion of Cape Coast’s liberation, I took a tour of the slave castles. In one of the cells I saw a blue flowered heart. Our guide points out that President Obama left this gift when he visited not too long ago. Obama is idolized here. His face hangs on taxi cabs’ rearview mirrors, as painted graffiti on the sides of building, walking through the crowds on the backs of t-shirts. It is even common for little shop huts to be named something like “Obama bless us hot food,” or “Freedom Obama hair salon” To them he represents the final stages of closure, some equalizing force, but those who have been schooled know the world is not quite there.
I walk through the “door or no return,” named so because once slaves walked through the wooden double-doors, they were herded into ships, bound to the Americas—land of the New World—never returning to their homeland again. Ironically, the door leads to the most beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean, though daunting in its vast shades of swirling blues. There, standing on the cracked cobblestone in the courtyard—below me steep cliffs, above a row of cannons pointing to the endless horizon—I close my eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like then, to be a slave in the Diaspora. As much as I try I know it’s impossible. I will never know, but the blood is engraved in stone. I am brought back to the present by the sounds of the parade, people dancing and drumming through the streets.

Olivia is the woman in the Busch Canteen Market who braids my hair. Another woman sits on a chair near us holding Olivia’s six-month-old child. Olivia makes goo-goo faces at her when she starts to cry, pulling my hair as she turns away from my head. “Her name is Andeshi,” she says proudly. “It means independence.” A shop nearby is cooking banku and fufu, and the ashes swarm around us. Olivia yells something I can’t understand to the cooking woman. My head is forced still but my eyes look around and see the chaotic nature of market life. Barefoot children running through the narrow aisles, some stopping to poke around at the brick-red clay dirt. Woman with giant pots balanced on their heads, walking gracefully through the crowds with a baby strapped to their back. Their beauty and their endurance is enough to make me breathless—these women are the bread-givers. I look at Andeshi and wonder if she will become one of these women. I hope no matter what she holds here back as proud.

There are moments in life that hold the weight of years. We drove most the way by trotro to the Volta region—the most mountainous area in Ghana. It was late November but the weather was as warm as a mid-July’s day back home. Growing up in Wisconsin, I judged the passing of time by the changing seasons. Here, it seemed I was forever in a perpetual state of stillness—frozen in the present.
My Rasta friend Afro wanted to show me his home village and his family’s small coco plantation. When we were several miles dew west, we had to hitch a ride on the backs of friendly passing motorists. In my backpack I carried two bottles of potent island rum, as Afro had suggested it custom to bring such a gift. From there, we walked several miles through coco, cassava, and bean fields until finally the crops gave way to a circular opening. There were dirt huts lining the edges, and some made of concrete.
“You must meet Grandfather, the Chief, first,” Afro explained. “Wait here,” he said as entered the largest hut. Around me the children stared. I felt their eyes digging their way through me, until they got to the center to ask why are here? I tried to make my eyes explain my intentions, but truth is I did not know myself. I did not know myself. I was looking for something authentic, something not structured for my foreignness. I wanted to do away with the guides and dormitories. The smallest boy inched his way to where I rested on a fallen log. He looked at him, then back at his siblings, and then back at me, over and over, until finally he reach and touched my arm—as if to see if I was real.
Out of the hut came a figure dressed in a grand bouboue, with an overpowering statue. My legs jumped up and the rest of my body tensed with fear. I had been hoping to be impressive with my skills of the Twi language but Afro had crashed my spirits when he announced his family was Ewe. So I knew going into this language would be a barrier. We shook hands and sat underneath the shade palm tree. “Kofi, go fetch us some coconuts,” he demanded of the boy. Kofi climbed the tall tree with ease, got out his machete, and coconuts fell to the ground. “I don’t have much but whatever I do have, I offer to you, my guest.”

At dusk the children built a fire and when the moon rose, everyone gathered around. The Chief took the island rum in his hand and offered a long pray to the ancestors, when he was finished he poured the first drops to the ground as an offering—and with that the night began. We passed the bottles around and around. Drummed on the bongos and shook the gourd rattles. Topless women danced around the blazing fire. And I sat back, drunk off the rum, taking it all in. Late into the night, as the fire was dying, I lay on a bamboo mat in the middle of this openness, staring at the clearest night I’ve ever seen, as I pictured the stars in the sky as ancestors looking down on me, on us. The arrow of time striking me, in this eternalized moment.

My study abroad experience would not have been possible without international insurance, helping keep me safe and healthy. Remember when traveling to get
international travel insurance with gateway plans.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


I feel as though my eyes aren’t working correctly. I feel like I’m seeing in black and white. I went from spectacular sunsets, breathtaking ocean views, reddish-brown soils, vibrant markets, and the most colorful fabrics on earth to grey-scale landscapes—dead trees, stark-white snow, and endless grey roads.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Home, Sweet(bitter) Home

I’ve been home for a week now. I guess you could say I had a bit of reverse culture shock. Surprisingly, I did jump back into the routine more easily than I had imagined. Sometimes I even feel like the last four months in Ghana were a dream—some distant fantasy in the back of slowly wakening mind.
It’s cliché but I was very much feeling bitter-sweet about my return home. Incredibly sad to be leaving the life that I had built in Ghana but excited to get home to the life I had put on pause. The night I left Ghana there was an intense downpour of rain. Friends who were all packed were relaxing watching the angry sky throw magnificent bolts of lightening. I, however, had no time to relax and reminisce. I spent most my last day getting my hair twisted and then rushing home to finish packing.
Sitting in the salon chair in the middle of the market as my hair was getting pulled every-which-way, I felt so incredibly odd. Odd because I could feel my valuable last moments in Ghana ticking away. Odd because I had a hundred things I needed to be doing but could only sit. Odd because I was forced to sit and think about leaving Ghana. Knowing that it might be my last day in Ghana for the rest of my life is immensely sad. But mark my words--whether it be in 5, 10, or 30 years—I will return.
My roommate Edna, Sharon, and Queenstar all helped me pack and with last minute things. I will really miss the three of them.
After goodbyes, Meagan and I shared a cab to the airport. Our driver’s car broke down after one block so he arranged another cab for us. He was a very nice guy and we know he told the cab driver to take us for the same price we agreed to pay him. However, after arriving at the airport the driver asked for more money then we had agreed on. ((By the way, the airport is an extremely intense place for foreigners; people are always trying to take advantage of the naïve traveler.)) Meagan and I refused to give him his extra money and then things got VERY HEATED. He grabbed Meagan’s arm and demanded we give him more money. We started yelling at him to never touch her. Then he took her bag as some sort of bargaining tool. We were both outraged! There were literally over 5 airport guards within 10 feet of us and none of them were doing anything! I grabbed the bag from him and told Meagan to go into the airport. I told the man to leave us alone, drive away and search for his remaining decency. We had lived in Ghana and we were not about to be taken advantage of.
We rubbed off the incident, though slightly traumatic. Our terminals were at different ends of the airport so we parted ways.
My flight route was from Accra, Ghana, to Frankfurt, Germany to Chicago to Milwaukee. My total travel time took over 30 hours. There was a delay in Frankfurt, which made me miss my connecting flight to Milwaukee from Chicago. I had a three hour layover which I passed sitting at the airport bar. Bad decision considering I missed that the terminal had changed and ultimately missed my second flight. They wait-listed me for another flight that left in a couple more hours. Thankfully, there was room and I was finally able to leave the damn O’hare airport.
During all the long hours at the airport I remember thinking how weird it was to be surrounded by people the same color as me. To put it frankly, I missed black people. I missed looking at their hair, their bright clothes, the way they moved so gracefully. I remember at the airport bar the CNN news was on the T.V. and they were talking about snowstorms sweeping across the states and recent bombings and murders. As I was watching the anchorwomen and all the bad news she was spilling out of her mouth, I remember I had a gut instinct to jump on the nearest plane that would bring me closer to Ghana.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

nearing the end

People ask me all the time why I chose to come to Ghana; why I chose Africa. Any question that is asked over and over again is bound to get slightly annoying, at least to me, but it is more than redundancy that makes me uncomfortable with the question. I feel as though, if I would have chosen to go somewhere, say a European country, the tone of that question would be different, if asked at all. But who can blame them for wanting to know why—why I, a white American, choose to study in a black developing country. The truth of the matter is that I am not exactly sure why I came here; what drew me to a country so different than my own. Ever since I was young, something about the vast continent of Africa intrigued me. Of course my images of Africa were skewed, shaped solely by the media, but perhaps that’s just it—I wanted to see Ghana for myself. This wonder, inspired by my ignorance, may have motivated me to travel to Ghana. After all, aren’t humans driven by curiosity? But I know this is not the full explanation.
I am conflicted by this sense of guilt, as a middle-class American with a world of opportunities available to me, living in a world where people are suffering. I want to help people, to better the world in some small but heroic way (if only for selfish motives). But there is poverty, natural disasters, and discrimination inflicting my own homeland. Plus, I would have come here as volunteer worker if I truly had been driven by a desire to “develop” Africa. But I didn’t, I came to Ghana as a student, a student attempting to learn more about a culture; a culture that led Africa in the movement for independence. Ghana is a dynamic country with a rich history where a sort of dualism (if not pluralism) exists. This dualism is found in the haunting past of colonialism paired with the redefined sense of freedom and a conflicting search for identity. It is found in the mixing of traditions with modernization. It is in this fragile balance of ideologies that I find myself, as a foreigner, in a challenging position. It is impossible for me to see Ghana as it truly exists because I am seeing Ghana through the perspective of a Westerner. I cannot simply take my tinted shades off because to do so would mean to rewrite my past. But to truly attempt to understand Ghana, I must try to do it exactly that. As I near the end of my stay here in Ghana, reflecting on my experience, I wonder how I could have made better use of my time. Perhaps I should have better plunged myself into Ghana’s culture. Maybe I should have better avoided my instinct to homogenize. But the very fact that I am critically asking myself these questions reveals to me that my world view has been expanded. I now truly feel comfortably with saying I have cultural relativism.
Living abroad has challenged me to step outside my boundaries. There have been times that I felt home sick, times that I felt annoyed with “Ghanaian hospitality,” times when I thought I would pass out from the heat, times when I craved hot showers—but I survived it all. In fact, I did more then survive it, I embraced it and the uncomfortable stages have only made me more humble. I have found a whole new appreciation for diversity—not just in Ghana but in the unique experience of living in an international hostel. The other day, as I was sitting around a dinner table, I realized how blessed it was to be given this unique opportunity. I was sitting at a table with friends from all over the world—China, France, Sudan, Pakistan, Norway, Japan.
With globalization and assimilation (combined with imperialism) our identity—who am I?—is the question that conflicts many of us. As an American who’s parents and grandparents were born in America my search for self is not displaced in some Diaspora but in my industrialized, capitalistic, individualistic homeland I search for my identity nonetheless. Without a doubt these experiences has shaped me and help me understand more about myself.
One can never step into the same river twice because the water that flows through its streams is never the same. People are like rivers in this sense. Time changes everyone; we are constantly evolving. When I return home I will see through new shades. There are things from Ghanaian culture that I hope to adopt in my life back home, like being less individualized and friendlier with strangers, taking the time to help someone on the streets and really getting to know people whom I may have previously never have gotten a chance to speak with.
If I could sum up what I learned having lived abroad, it would be that the world is vastly more complex than anyone can imagine and it is filled with unique individuals but at the core of it all we are all people with universal emotions and our similarities outnumber our differences. Our differences should be embraced but in universal harmony. So while I may never know why exactly I came to Ghana, I do know that I do not regret the decision to come whatsoever. Studying abroad has helped me see myself and the world through clearer lenses.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

3 exams down, one more to go

Today I had my first real exam that wasn’t USAC (my study-abroad program) designed.I find it odd that they run exams on Sunday's, especially when a lot of shops are closed on Sundays and with church and all. It was trickier than I had imagined. It was all essay questions and one of the questions, the one that weighed the most, was worded very oddly. It was down-pouring and lightening during the final and the room we were in, like most of the classrooms here, was very open to the outside which made it awesome.

During the exam I got a huge craving for Italian food so I convinced Queen Star to go with me to Mama Mia’s, a restaurant downtown. There, we had a very snobby waitress and Queen Star was getting annoyed. I found it interesting because the server was Ghanaian and every time I talked she looked only at Queen Star, who is also Ghanaian. Even with giving me the soda I ordered, she’d put it in front of Queen Star. We all have prejudices i guess.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Snakes, stealing monkeys, and phantoms—Oh my!

Last weekend Meagan, Corbett, Ric and I went to the country of Benin. Benin is a francophone country and in many ways similar to Togo. Most everyone if Benin practices some form of Voodoo or juju. In a period of 12 hours we traveled by trotro through 3 African countries. We stayed the first night in Benin in the city of Ouidah. Our hotel was nothing great but it was in the center of the village and had this quaint little rooftop seating where we spent the first night talking and enjoying the view of the village and the sky.

The next morning we walked to the “temple of Pythons” where we found a zillion (well probably like a hundred or two) pythons. I think at one point I had like 6 snakes all up on me. I wasn’t afraid at all, I’m pretty use to Ball Pythons, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the group. Eventually everyone felt comfortable embracing the snakes. The temple we were at was built largely for tourism, but we were told that the villagers believe the snakes to be sacred and thus they are protected.

Walking around we happened to find ourselves caught in the middle of a voodoo parade with hundreds of people marching through the streets. There were a few people in elaborate customs dressed as Phantoms. The phantoms go around chasing people and the people literally look like they are running for their lives to escape the phantoms touch. One Phantom was very close to Ric and I, and all of a sudden started running our way. Luckily, there was a tree between us and just as fast as he appeared he vanished back into the mass of people. Parades like this happen often on the weekends.

That same day we traveled to Grand Popo and stayed at a hotel on the beach. When Ric and I were sitting by the ocean we noticed an SUV driving along the shore. As the vehicle passed us, a group of 4 men waved to us. After they passed, about 40 seconds and 30 feet later, they got stuck in the sand for quite some time. One of the passengers, as the driver tried to maneuver his way through the sand, came over and talked to us. We did the usual casual chitchat and then he told us we should stop by their hotel later for dinner. About an hour or two later they came back with their car and told us we should come now. We all said what the hell and went with them. Their hotel was about 10 times nicer then ours. The four men were from Lebanon and did business in Benin. They were all a lot older but very nice. As it turned out, the dinner was more of an elaborate home-made picnic and they made traditional Lebanese food. There was fish that was caught fresh that day, salad, this pita thingy, and fresh pineapple juice. We sat by the fire outside eating and smoking hookah. I would have liked to stay longer but Meagan wasn’t feeling well so we headed back to our hotel.
I love the fact that I can sit by the shore and my night can turn into something unexpected like that. I like befriending strangers and being guided by open possibilities. I felt, and I’m sure the other girls did too, a lot safer having Ric with us. But really, people in this part of the world are just friendlier and most have good intentions. People are so interesting and if you take chances, you’ll understand what I mean.

The next morning we went on a two hour canoe ride through a stilt village. This community revolved around fishing and it was so interesting to see the fishermen (and women) and their nets. As we passed some of the homes we saw little children playing a game with phantoms. It’s something you don’t think about everyday, but it was neat to see how children from different cultures “play.”

Because our visas only allowed us two days in Benin we spent the third night in Togo. We were told about this small hotel close to the border that was nice. It turned out to be a pretty awesome find. The lobby of the hotel was decorated in some of the most beautiful African art I have seen. There were also pet monkeys! There was this little monkey (I think she was a mono monkey) named Suzy. At times she could be super sweet and at other times she was a bitch but all the while she was cute. She stole Meagan’s sunglasses and put them on and she try stealing whatever she could get her hands on. She’d sometimes bite us pretty hard too. Other times she’d lie on my lap and cuddle with me. She slept with a blanky, adorable!
Not visible to guests, but since we befriended a guy who lived there, we were able to see the baboon pet. She was female and had a great dislike for other females. She was not in the lobby because she’d throw rocks at the guests. I tired to get closer to her and in return I got a face full of sand. She did however like males, and Ric was able to shake her hand. The guy told us that she has gotten lose a few times and when she does she goes about the village stealing babies from mothers and when the mothers try to get their children back she hits them. She’s very gentle with the babies and I guess the act stems from her great desire to be a mother. It’s very sad in a way.

On the way back home we opted to take the big bus instead of a trotro. Bad idea! The bus made so many long stops and then we got a flat tired and had to wait around for a new one. Also, during a checkpoint in Ghana, a police guard asked for our passports on the buss (clearly our skin color shouts foreigner!) and made us get off the bus so he could record our information down in his log book. To make matters worse, ric and I had about the worse seat on the bus. The windows were set up so out of a three rows, the middle row’s window couldn’t slide open. We sat in the middle, which wouldn’t have been that bad if the person in front of behind us wanted their windows open! I tried several times to get the window opened but they kept sliding it back. I sweating more then I’ve sweated in a sauna. Eventually, as the bus picked up speed I could feel the faint air from distant windows. It was a long trip back but I’ve grown to appreciate the self-reflection that occurs on long trips.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Time is a strange thing here. Thanksgiving has just past and Christmas is on its way. Shopping malls have Christmas decorations, downtown buildings have Christmas lights, and Christmas songs dominate the radio stations but the weather has stayed consistently hot, if not increasing in temperature. What I use to measure time has failed me; the weather is unchanging yet time keeps moving.

Our program joined forces with two other study abroad programs to put together an American (with a twist of Ghanaian) Thanksgiving feast. There was turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry jam, and even pie. There were also traditional Ghanaian dishes and between dinner and desert there was traditional African dancing. It was a good night—truly a Thanksgiving that sticks out among the rest. Being away puts things into a perceptive that I cannot easily see when I’m close; the distance actually clears my understanding. I’m more thankful for my blessings than I have probably ever been.

I must be off to bed; tomorrow we are leaving before the sun rises to go to Benin (my 3rd Africa country).