Alumna Learns About More Than Her Roots

Published in Volume 16, Number 4, Summer 1998

You thought if anyone had the credentials to handle Africa, it was you. You have lived in Spain and Bolivia and as a black/white/Cherokee-American woman. Your whole life has been one big exercise in cross-cultural experience. You have spent time in a village in the middle of nowhere, had stones thrown at your head because you were born and raised in the superpower to end all superpowers. You knew it wouldn’t be easy, but you thought you could survive Africa without losing your marbles.

You were wrong.

When you get off the plane in Accra, struggle through the hundreds of families awaiting the arrival of only one person, two men are waiting to take you back to their family home. They do not even know you, and yet they give you a clean bed to lay down your head and hot, gooey fofu (pounded, steamed yams) to fill your stomach.

The next day you talk to the patriarch of the family about how long you will stay here. You bring up the word “compensation.” He laughs and says, “You Westerners only think in terms of money.” You are thinking that this is not true; we think about plenty of other things (like, say, work), but your mind bends in strange and uncomfortable ways when you challenge it to find another expression of payment. A month later you will discover that a big bag of food every week is an acceptable form of compensation. You are quite aware that no one would just take you in like this back home.

Your Ghanaian family feeds you kenkey (steamed flour balls made from maize that has been soaked for three days); banku (cassava and maize balls); teezit(steamed flour balls made from dry maize); boiled yam and fried yam, all seasoned with generous amounts of cayenne pepper. After four months, you are growing addicted to the taste; you can feel your taste buds dying.

In the States you lock yourself in your room to read and write and are described as “a bit antisocial at times” by family and friends. In Ghana, the same behavior deems you a certifiable sociopath.

The recurring ancestor argument

Walking through the streets of the city, you find that the open sewers and ubiquitous trash overwhelm you. Half-dressed children run through the streets without their shoes, yelling and screaming at you in languages you do not understand. However, one word you learn quickly is “obrooni,” or “white woman.” Ghanaians call you this as well as “half-caste,” and even occasionally “half-breed,” names you thought you left behind when you graduated from seventh grade. You remember how the thing you wanted most in the world when you were 12 was to be a white girl. You remind yourself to be more careful what you wish for.

But some Ghanaians recognize that you are a black American in an instant. The first time this happens, it is a revelation. You want to kiss the man you utters these precious words. For the first time in months, you feel like you are seen for who you are. Then, a strange thing starts to happen. You start to grow weary whenever someone mentions the fact that you are a black American because it is usually followed by something that does not make you happy. A group of Ghanaian students ask you why black Americans are so angry. You want to ask them why Ghanaians are not angry, why they just sit back and take everything that is given to them like medicine.

A man on a four-hour bus ride to Tamale initiates a conversation by saying that he wishes that his ancestors were put on the slave ships like yours, so that he too could be “rich, like you black Americans.” He asks if you have come back to Africa to “find your roots,” like most black Americans. He says he is glad you returned to Africa because you can find a husband and share your wealth with your African brothers and sisters. You want to tell him that a trip on the slave ships actually wasn’t like taking a plane across the Atlantic; millions of men, women and children died on the voyage. You want to tell him that those who survived were exploited for centuries, and it is only because your ancestors fought for what they believed in and risked their lives that we have an educated, black middle class in America today.

You want to tell him that his ancestors sold your ancestors for a mirror or a bottle of gin, and that if you are now doing better economically than he is, then maybe some karmic wrong has been made right. More than anything, however, you want to hit him, hard. But you do not hit him, and you do not say anything. You have heard all of this before and will hear it again and again. Ghanaians say that they didn’t have anything to do with slavery, that it was their ancestors’ doing, that the debt has been paid since we in the diaspora are now “rich.” But most of the time, they say nothing at all about the legacy of slavery. And the world will keep working to forget because we would have so much work to do if we remembered. Maybe the pain would kill us. But you wonder if it isn’t already killing people of African descent across the world: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Every day you die a little here, trying to explain a history that has been erased.

Some days, you wonder why you are here. Some days, others wonder why you are here. A taxi driver who calls you “sister” asks you why the U.S. government can give you money to write fiction but will give no money to the people starving on the streets of Accra. You try to explain that you are on a private fellowship, that your government does give millions to development organizations in Ghana, but he will not listen. He is enamored with his own voice, and your destination is 20 minutes away. You stare out the window and silently chant the all-too-familiar mantra: “It’s all part of the experience.”

Before you left, you had this idea of yourself as a tough, strong woman. In the States you rock climb, run long distance, play Ultimate Frisbee in the summer and canoe and camp in Northern Minnesota. In Ghana, packed into a bus with at least 100 other people, you faint like a heroine in a Harlequin romance novel. You are standing for the five-hour bus ride to the Mole Game Reserve (where baboons and elephants run around outside your motel room door!). Ten other peoples’ elbows, feet, knees, body odor invade your space, and you start to feel claustrophobic. You tell yourself you have biked the 26-mile Patawotomi trail at least 10 times on one bottle of water; you can stand this short hell. And then you can’t. All at once, blackness invades your vision. You feel like someone locked in a closet, very, very far away. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” you shout. And you can vaguely hear your friend Samantha shouting, “Stop the bus! Stop the bus! My friend is sick!” Just as you are wondering if you will be blind for life, a man gives you his seat, and the colors of the world come together before your eyes, like a jigsaw puzzle. You say you can see again, you’re fine and the bus starts up. Everyone is looking at you. You feel ridiculous for proving what they always suspected: thatobroonis are inherently physically weaker than Africans.

The mixed emotions of here and there

In October, you stay in a rural village in northern Ghana for two weeks. You cannot believe the way people respect one another, bowing to elders and important community members and visiting with each other when they meet. It seems to you that, like those in the city, the women in the village do most of the work (though the men staunchly deny it). And the more time you spend in Ghana, the more it seems to you that polygamy is merely a social system created to legitimize male sexual desire. You meet men in the village who have two or three wives and many children, whom they cannot support. You tell your parents about your experiences, and your mom says that a black American colleague told her that everything and everyone is equal in the village. You are starting to think that maybe you won’t tell anyone you’ve been to West Africa when you return to the States. Maybe you will say you have been in West Virginia for eight months, instead.

Your tissues, maxi pads and food wrappers stick to your body like the dirt here. There are no trash cans anywhere: you carry an empty plastic bag in your backpack. But it fills too soon, and you are forced to throw it out on the street anyway, contributing further to the urban decay. In Ghana you cannot escape the trash you generate the way you can in the States. At the end of the day, it is always waiting for you, wadded in every corner of the room you share with your host sister, Sirina.

Sirina saves your life every day. She is 20 and hopes to study science in the West next year. Since every Ghanaian man you have met so far always ends up hitting you and Ghanaian women are busy with home and work obligations, it has been a challenge to make friends here. You and Sirina talk over the days and work through them together — laughing and gabbing. It is just like your girlfriends back home. On New Year’s Eve the two of you go to the Lucky Dube concert together. You dance and dance to the South African artist’s lush beat and sharp political message and marvel that you are here to hear this, feel this, be this. An engine rumbles overhead, and you see the neon yellow, red and green of the Ghana Airways airplane. It is headed for New York, and you are so glad you are not on it and you want to be on it.

You can’t believe how lucky you are to be living your life.

Shannon Gibney, who completed an eight-month visit to Ghana, West Africa, in May, received the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Alumni Study/Travel Award.

*Sankofa is an adinkra, or burial cloth, symbol that means “go back to your roots.”

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