Before this study abroad opportunity, I had never even thought about visiting Africa, much less any specific country. How would I get there? With what money? With whose money? Growing up, my family could only dream of traveling. We never took vacations or traveled anywhere beyond Illinois’ neighboring states. We traveled as far as my pa’s car could take us. Leaving home to study at Davidson was both a significant transition and opportunity for my family and me that was made possible by scholarships and financial aid. Once enrolled at Davidson, I saw all the colorful brochures with smiling and glowing Davidson students studying abroad in India, Thailand, Spain, Sweden, and more. I saw the statistics, “Over half of a graduating class at Davidson studies abroad,” but even then, I doubted that I would get the chance to go abroad. Now here I am, sitting in my hotel room in Kumasi, writing up this blog post well into the second week of the program. Before my experiences here, Ghana was just another country that popped up in the news or a charity infomercial every once in a while.
The transition from a Davidson finals week to the bustling, yet leve leve pace and life of Ghana was abrupt. I had no schema of life in Ghana: What would people think of me? How would they dress? Would I like the food? What do people think of Americans? All of these questions raced in my head as I shifted in my seat and fought for my leg space on the long flights to get here. I could not help but to ask myself, “What did you get yourself into?”
The warm sun and humid air humbly greeted me as I stepped off the plane and into Ghana. We traveled around for the first few days, and as I sat in the comfort of an air-conditioned van, I was mostly chillin’ – A bit startled by the bumper to bumper yet efficiently aggressive driving, but chillin’ nonetheless.
The anxiety started to kick-in during the first few days in Kumasi. My thoughts throughout the first week in Kumasi as we had our introductions and set up our lives for the next 7 weeks went something like this: Wow, I really stand out. This food is amazing, I can definitely do this for the next 7 weeks. Damn, why is everyone walking so fast. I didn’t even know my elbows could sweat. Everyone is so nice! I really, really stand out. Tro tro’s are kind of a lot to handle. Where am I? What is that smell? Where are we going? Ahh, please let go of my arm, I have to go now. When are we getting back to the hotel? When are the lights turning back on? Actually, I don’t know if I can do this for the next 7 weeks.
As I started meeting my teachers, co-workers, and supervisors, almost everyone wanted to know what I thought of Ghana. I smile every time and answer, “Ghana is so beautiful, so much more green and colorful than America.” This answer is almost always met with a frown and doubt, “Are you sure? Is everything in Ghana beautiful?” I remember feeling disappointed, and I would list off everything I thought was beautiful, trying to convince them of the beauty I see here, “Yes! The buildings, the trees and nature, all the animals, the food, the cloth, the city and houses! And the people! Everyone is so nice and welcoming!”
At my service site, I would notice that Mr. D, the executive director of the organization and our supervisor, brings up America in almost every conversation. He would compare the malls, the infrastructure, technology, or the traffic lanes in Ghana to that of America, “Yes, KCM is the largest market in West Africa, you should visit there some time, but I know in America you have bigger ones.”
As I slowly released the tension from the Davidson semester, finally unpacked my suitcase, and took a deep breath, I began to dismantle the misconceptions I had and some of my first impressions. As an aspiring anthropologist, I constantly think about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. The last thing I wanted to reinforce was Westernized conceptions of Ghanaians and life in Ghana. What I am experiencing in Ghana and what I see here are not the guilt-tripping depictions of a white savior-esque infomercial.
After much continuous reflection and conversations with friends, I came to realize what I was doing. In trying to de-Westernize the notion of Ghana and African countries as “developing” or “third-world,” I was not allowing some Ghanaians to feel some type of way about their lives. I was limiting the spectrum of Ghana that I was seeing, and I was overlooking and rejecting what I considered negative experiences or contexts. This is not to say that I agree or reinforce any of the hierarchical or white supremacist connotations attached to the labels of “developing” or “third-world” countries. I specifically reflected on my presence as an American citizen, and that being an American citizen meant that I can go abroad on these trips, that I can simply visit and return back home. Yes, there is poverty and homelessness here in Kumasi. It exists. I thought about the challenges I experienced coming from a low-income background in an urban city in the U.S., and the ways poverty manifests differently in Ghana. Yet, I thought about how I can always leave and will ultimately end up leaving Kumasi. I thought about how the people living here -the women in the market selling fruits, the man sitting in the rain with no roof to take cover under, the children swaddled on their mother’s backs- could not leave. Maybe those that can and want to leave will one day, but most do not have the choice and privilege that I do.
I do not wish to romanticize or generalize the experiences of poverty in Ghana. I just listened to what some Ghanaians have to say about living in Kumasi. Wealthy Ghanaians exist, some Ghanaians want to go to America, others are fine where they are here, getting a visa to the U.S. is super difficult, Ghanaians dislike Trump probably as much as some Americans do, getting an education is expensive. There is still so much I have to learn.
What I am trying to say is, living in poverty or being low-income, to put it simply, sucks. And people are allowed to feel some type of way about that. Ghanaians are allowed to feel some type of way about their lives in comparison to the U.S. Mr. D is allowed to feel some type of way about the budget cuts affecting APTPG (Aids Prevention and Treatment Program in Ghana). These perceptions can co-exist and remain valid. I am not sure why it took me so long and some difficulty to wrap my head around this point, but I got here somehow.
The “national geographic” depictions manifest themselves in the post cards. I saw various post cards being sold by vendors and in book shops, all depicting various tourist attractions: intricate beading and art work, Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, the luscious forests and sunny beaches along the coast, rhtyhmic drumming and dancing, and bustling markets and museums. It is on myself, and on us as a group, to both deconstruct and redefine our context in Ghana and the schemas of those we share our experiences with back home.
While these are my initial reflections, I know there is still so much I have to learn and unpack. Please keep the conversation going!
Photo: An image from a second floor balcony, depicting unfinished buildings and the paved road.
Photo: The view of Kumasi from the balcony of Freeman Guesthouse. This view often makes me reflect on the high population density of Kumasi.
I have included the link to a national geographic website for kids to reference what the current representation and education about Ghana includes: www.kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/countries/ghana/#ghana-huts.jpg
This is a link to a national geographic traveler’s article that outlines a “Tour of a Lifetime” Excursion that demonstrates how Western depictions feed into certain exotifying and exploitative ideologies of African countries and culture: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2011/05/23/tours-of-a-lifetime-ghana-untouched/