GHANA: THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

December 5, 2007 § Leave a comment

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While most of my fellow seniors are busy enjoying senior festivities and trying to fight off senioritis, I am spending the first half of my last year of college a continent away in West Africa. When some people realized I was serious about coming to Ghana, the typical uninformed questions and comments that come when one decides to travel to a third world country surfaced. Ghana, what could you possibly do in Ghana? Why not study in Europe? Don’t you think you’d have more fun there? You better hope you don’t get malaria. And won’t you have to live in a hut or something? Are you sure it’s even safe there? What about the AIDS rate? Although I was annoyed by the ignorance of these comments, I understood how people could have these negative perceptions of Africa. Every time you turn on the television and there’s a story about Africa, it’s usually never anything positive. Images of starving children, violence, corruption and poverty fill the screen. As an aspiring journalist myself I feel there are two sides to every story and one of my reasons for studying abroad in Africa was to come back and show people that there is more to this continent than what people see on TV. Now I can’t speak for all of Africa because I’ve only been to Ghana. But I figure if travelers can base their positive perceptions of Europe on their experiences in just one European country like France or England, then I can look at Ghana as a positive representation of Africa. I’m now approaching the end of my time in Ghana and I must say this has been the best experience of my life. So allow me to give you some tidbits on life in Ghana from the eyes of a foreign student.

The People

Ghanaian students I taught in a village outside of Legon.

Ghanaian students I taught in a village outside of Legon.

Ghana has been hailed as one of the friendliest countries in West Africa Africa and I agree wholeheartedly. Never in my life have I encountered a country of people that are so amicable and willing to help—especially foreigners. In Ghana every time I enter a room, I’m greeted with a friendly, “You are welcome,” followed by a firm handshake. Asking for directions in a foreign land can be intimidating, but in Ghana even if the person can’t direct me, he or she will instantly lead me to someone else who can. I recall several times where I’ve met complete strangers simply walking down a dirt road or sitting on a bus. These strangers who were genuinely interested in finding out where I come from and what I think about their country soon became my friends. I recall another time when my friend and I were short on money to pay for tickets to a John Legend charity concert and two Ghanaian strangers insisted that we let them give us the money instead of trying to find an ATM in an area of town we were unfamiliar with. Another story that comes to mind was when I fell ill for a week and had to miss classes. When some of my Ghanaian classmates realized I was not in class, they actually called to see how I was feeling. Some of them even stopped by my hostel to wish me well. Or when one of my students from the after school program where I taught this semester sent me a handwritten note apologizing for not coming to class.The hospitality, concern and consideration for others in Ghana is like no other.

The Culture

Masked men celebrate at Oguaa Fetu Festival in Cape Coast.

Masked men celebrate at Oguaa Fetu Festival in Cape Coast.

Having lived in America my entire life and this being the only time I visited another country, adjusting to a new culture was difficult at times, but extremely rewarding in the end because I was exposed to many new and interesting things. One of the most important aspects of Ghanaian culture is etiquette. Before coming to Ghana etiquette for me didn’t go much further than the usual please and thank you. But in Ghana I found that it is considered insulting to use your left hand to pass or receive something or when shaking hands or eating something. In the beginning, I found myself having to remind myself constantly to comply with this custom. Now using my right hand for everything has become second nature. Greeting procedures are also more formalized in Ghana, especially in small towns and villages and when dealing with elders. I can also recall many times when my Ghanaian friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have offered me food. “You’re invited,” they say, meaning that I am welcome to share some of their food. I found that it was considered rude to decline their invitation to share food. Another aspect of Ghanaian culture I had to adjust to was the frankness in social interactions. In the Western world it is considered rude to tell a person that he or she is fat. But, in Ghana a comment like that is not considered rude at all. It is just considered to be someone’s observation of what they see when they look at a person.

Way of Life

Ghanaians selling food along the roadside.

Ghanaians selling food along the roadside.

One of the biggest culture differences I experienced was bargaining daily for food, goods, and transport. In America one may come across a street vendor or two in a city or visit a pawn shop and need to bargain for a good price. However, in Ghana bargaining is an everyday practice. At nearly every corner there is an outdoor marketplace where goods are sold or there are individuals selling products on the roadside. A common sight is a young woman carrying a basket of bread or a basket full of bags of water on her head or a person bargaining with a taxi driver. In the actual marketplace it is custom to bargain with the sellers, although there are some stores where there are fixed prices. I remember during my initial first few weeks I grew very frustrated with bargaining because many of the sellers would overcharge me for items because they knew I was a foreigner, meaning they assumed I had an excess amount of money. Once I learned how to bargain, going to the marketplace became less of a hassle and more of a breeze. Another part of living in Ghana that I had to adjust to was the lack of everyday conveniences from home. While the student hostel I lived in had indoor plumbing, there were several days when the water there would cut off. When this happened I filled up a bucket with water from a pump outside to wash my body. And because of the energy crisis in Africa, there were often power outages. Therefore, candles and flashlights were very useful. And in public places, especially in villages and small towns outside cities, finding restrooms were hard and sometimes nonexistent. So carrying toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me wherever I went became second nature. But as time passed I realized that these inconveniences were not as bad as they seemed and not having these inconveniences actually helped me to become more resourceful. Within just a couple of weeks I found myself adjusting more and more to these aspects of Ghana.


The Food

Banku cooking.

Banku cooking.

In Ghana, I was introduced to new foods, some of which like kenkey (sour tasting maize-flour balls steamed and wrapped in maize leaves), fufu (boiled cassava or yam that is pounded and served with soup) and banku (cassava and cornmeal) were acquired tastes. Other Ghanaian staples that didn’t take long for me to love were jollof rice (a spicy rice), waakye (rice and red beans) and kelewele (spicy fried ripe plantain with stew). One of my favorite places to eat on campus was “The Night Market,” which was an outdoor market composed of several rows of vendors selling everything from chicken, fresh fish, soups, plantain, and rice to traditional Ghanaian foods like fufu. The name, “night market,” was kind of deceiving because the marketplace opened bright and early at 9am and closed at around 9pm every night. So I figured the name was due in part to the fact that it was one of the few places on campus that remained open late. The food here was extremely inexpensive, like many markets in Ghana. You could eat a hearty dinner for as little as $0.80.

The Language

A very blunt advertisement about safe sex that I passed enroute to somewhere in Ghana. Tell it like it is billboards were commonplace.

A very blunt advertisement about safe sex that I passed enroute to somewhere in Ghana. Tell it like it is billboards were commonplace.

One of the best parts about studying in Ghana was learning a new language. Although English is the official language in Ghana, most of the country’s people use their native tongue when communicating with each other. In the region of Ghana where I lived, people spoke Twi, the language of the Asante and Fante people. I enrolled in a Twi course (pronounced “tree”) and learned how to speak and write in Twi. The only other language I’ve studied was Spanish, so to learn an entirely new language in the land where it is spoken was incredible. Being able to understand Twi also helped me to communicate with the people more, which was extremely useful during my many travels away from the University. Whenever I spoke Twi to a Ghanaian person he or she would give me a light-hearted laugh and urge me to continue, which showed that they were amazed and delighted that I was learning their language. I soon learned that many of my Ghanaian friends also spoke pidgin (a blend of English and Twi), which also became useful during my time in Ghana.

University Life

Balme Library on campus at The University of Ghana

Balme Library on campus at The University of Ghana

I studied and lived at The University of Ghana, located in Legon, Ghana, about 13 kilometers north-east of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Founded in 1948, it is the oldest and largest of the five public universities in Ghana with a student population of about 28,480 –a far cry away from the medium-sized campus of my home institution. Studying at The University of Ghana was very different from the States because the academics were way more relaxed, meaning that there wasn’t much work to do apart from coming to class and in most classes the only evaluation students receive is at the end of the semester at final examination time. Because of the more relaxed academic environment I had lots of free time, which gave me more time to really see Ghana and get more of a cultural experience—which was what I came for.

Traveling

Breathtakingly beautiful Wli Falls.

Breathtakingly beautiful Wli Falls in the Volta Region.

Ghana is a beautiful country, so exploring all of the beautiful sights it offers was the best thing about my experience here. In my travels I found myself in Kumasi, home of the Asante people (one of the most powerful nations in West Africa at the end of the 19th century) and best known for its kente-weaving villages. I also journeyed to the illustrious towns of Cape Coast and Elmina, which despite their beauty have a devastating past in that it is home to several castles and forts that held slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In my travels there I toured both the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, which made for a somber but also enlightening experience. I also experienced my first ever harvest festival in Cape Coast, called Oguaa Fetu which takes place on the first Saturday in September. At the festival traditional chiefs from the area parade in kente-cloth togas and gold crowns and medallions. The most important chiefs are carried in canoe-like stretchers balanced on the heads of four manservants and shaded by huge parasols or umbrellas. The parade lasts all day and there’s lots of dancing, drinking, food, and music—giving it a Carnival-like atmosphere. I also traveled to the Eastern Region and the Volta Region (my favorite), where the mountainous and savannah-like landscapes and beautiful waterfalls are mesmerizing.

Men using dye in a Kumasi village to create Adinkra symbols to stamp on pieces of cloth.

Men using dye in a Kumasi kente-weaving village to create Adinkra symbols to stamp on pieces of kente cloth.

During these travels I’ve been welcomed into small villages where the people (especially the children) are friendly and full of life. They taught me traditional African dance moves as well as how to cook Ghanaian dishes and even how to basketweave.

Mona monkeys at a monkey sanctuary.

Mona monkeys at a monkey sanctuary.

In my many hikes around Ghana I’ve also seen my share of wildlife. I’ve gotten to feed baboons and monkeys and even ventured into a bat cave. Traveling throughout Ghana gave me the opportunity to see sights I could have never seen from the classroom and meet people I’ll never forget.

As I write this I’m approaching the end of my journey in Ghana. In less than two weeks I’ll be back home. The familiar sights, sounds, and people from America will be refreshing to return to. But at the same time the culmination of this journey is bittersweet. I gained more knowledge in four months here about Africa and perceptions of the Western world then I can learn in a lifetime living in America. I also gained a better appreciation for different cultures because I not only met students from Ghana, but students from all over the world. Each time I think about the journey back home I reflect on everything I experienced here in Ghana know that I’ll treasure the memories forever. As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “you have to go there to know there,” and I realize there’s so much more to Africa then what we see on TV.


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Dark Territory

October 5, 2007 § 2 Comments

dark_territory_blog_photo.jpgI told myself that no matter what I saw I wouldn’t cry. That Friday afternoon I mentally prepared myself to approach a place flooded with harrowing memories of a dark past–not of my own, but of ancestors that I’ll never know. I felt the presence of millions of men and women–all of them connected to me because of the lineage we share. Bodies and souls stripped from their native land and subjected to more than 400 years of forced labor intertwined with despair and death. Captured, chained, and exploited to build a New World that I today call my homeland—America.

I always knew America was built on the browbeaten backs of my ancestors. I understood the toil of centuries past. I was fully aware of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, having read several history books in my day and having heard stories from the mouths of my parents who made it their duty to make their daughter aware of her past, no matter how dark. Knowledge of one’s history spun from the pages of books and the tongues of men is telling. But seeing the traces of a bruised and battered history is even more powerful.

Just off the coast of West Africa lies a place in Ghana overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The destination—the Cape Coast Castle, is now a tourist attraction. I watch as mostly foreigners walk to and fro, cameras in stow looking for the best angle to catch a glimpse of something strikingly beautiful to send along with the post cards they’ll send to their family, friends, and colleagues back home. Yes, the Cape Coast Castle! Oh, what a majestic sight for a tourist’s eyes to navigate. The pentagon shaped ivory colored structure covering about 3,900ms captivates all those who look upon her. The large triangular courtyard faces seaward giving rise to a stunning ocean view which centuries ago was where slaves were auctioned and branded before being placed in their dungeons. Despite the aesthetic visage of the castle, I look at it in disdain because the atrocities that took place here cannot be excused. The way the sunlight hits the castle attempts to eradicate the stark sadness that still permeates the premises. But I know better. There isn’t a light bright enough to deluge the despair that can still be felt within these walls even after all this time. With each step I take, my feet touch the solid rock surface and I envision the souls of my people. Their feet planted in this very same spot where I now stood. The only difference—my soul would be free once I left the premises, while the souls of my ancestors were trapped. Their footprints that I see as I walk are the remnants of a tragic past.

The tour guide, a Ghanaian male probably in his late 20s gives me and several other students a brief history of the darkness that at one time covered the Cape Coast Castle. The look in his eyes as he recounts the misery of millions upon millions of my ancestors is at times unbearable to witness. The male and female dungeons are deep, dark tunnels in the castle with one way in and one way out, symbolizing the entrapment that was the life of a slave. As I travel through the female slave dungeon I feel the coldness of the pain endured there long ago. Each dungeon had one air vent and opposite each vent was a spy hole, which enabled slave masters to supervise their captives. The walls of the castle were built with lime and sand, allowing the moisture to penetrate the walls evaporating inside to cool down the rooms’ temperature and whitewash the castle as it reflected heat into the air.

In this claustrophobic space where hundreds of women at a time laid their heads to rest, ate (very little), and relieved themselves, the stench of blood, sweat, and feces is an aroma one wants to forget, but cannot because it still lingers. The stains of blood spilled also remain. When sickness ensued as a result of these appalling conditions, the death toll increased. Awaiting shipment to the New World, the only daylight the slaves saw were the few minutes they spent on the courtyard for labor and exercise.

Inside the dungeons men and women were treated like savages. And those that showed resistance—their fate was gloomier. When I was led there, the vision was heartbreaking. When I entered what the tour guide referred to as “the cell,” my tears could not be withheld. Slaves were transported in shackles from their dungeons and pushed into this black hole of silence. In isolation, those that were forced into the cell waited to die from starvation or the lash—whichever came first. The silence and darkness of the cell was so much to bear that some even slowly went blind. Once they were dead or near death they were discarded into the Atlantic, their bodies washed away for eternity. With no knowledge of what conditions awaited them in the New World and frustrated with life in the dungeons, some slaves saw suicide as an escape. The plunge into the sea for many was like entering the gates of heaven. The sour taste of tears dripping downward, reaching the corner of my mouth made my head swell with pain. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. I had to stay in this moment to truly take in all that had happened in the cell. I stood motionless, a solemn look in my eyes as the tour guide said a prayer for all those that had passed on.

As I left the grounds of the castle that Friday afternoon, I realized I had an overwhelmingly emotional experience that I couldn’t clearly convey into words. Like I said before, I was well aware of what happened centuries ago. But the moments I spent inside the castle allowed me to internally feel the pain of the strife my ancestors endured. Maybe it was the imagery or maybe it was just the aura of the place still infested with sadness and turmoil. Whatever it was, it encompassed my entire being that afternoon. It created a storm in my heart as tears fell and my body weakened. Entering the grounds of the Cape Coast Castle was like entering a realm of darkness. For them it was hell because there was no turning back. For me it was only dark territory. And I was relieved to escape and see the light, unlike those from generations past.


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