I recently just traveled to Accra, Ghana for spring break. It was my first time in Africa. This was definitely one of the most interesting trips I had gone on. I think what made it that way was the group of people I traveled with, the people I met on the journey, the activities I participated in, and my own sentiments on traveling to the motherland.
I went with my scholarship group at NYU. It was about 36 people. 5 adults and the rest were students. As with any group of people, when you have a large group living together in close quarters for days, there are going to be conflicts. However, these conflicts were different than any other conflicts that I had encountered before, and I know it had a lot to do with the fact that this scholarship group is comprised of rising activists.
Initially, I had set out to find myself an African prince, and although there were many prospects I didn’t quite find the one. A lot of the time, I felt like I was a display in the eyes of the men there. Before I would even speak, they knew I was American. And they were not shy about sharing with me that they found that exotic. Personally, I did attract a lot of attention from the men in Ghana. At the time, the marriage proposals, the attempts to hold my hand, the declaring of me as their “African Queen,” and just the comments about my appearance in general seemed laughable and sometimes was a confidence booster. But as I reflect a little more, I’m starting to become a little more uncomfortable with it. That has a lot to do with the way I was treated after I would turn down offers. For example, at the airport, one of the workers was trying to flirt with me but I didn’t want to engage. He actively would lean forward in front of my face when I would try to look away from him. Finally he got upset that I was not flirting back. He made me give him my passport as he questioned me. I didn’t answer any of the questions, I let my male friends handle it. When I got my passport back I was instructed to wipe the look of annoyance off of my face and to just let it go. I was the only person out of about 100 people that had to give my passport to that man. So yes, I was annoyed. The male ego is fragile everywhere. But in my experiences, they seemed to be a little bit more vocal in Ghana.
We visited two villages in Ghana. One village was a traditional village, and the other was in a more urban area. In the urban area we worked at a community center. It’s called Basics. First, I’d like to note that Basics is amazing. It provides a safe haven for kids, gets them off the street and into school, and really helps the kids develop their reading and math skills. At Basics we had a contest to see who could collect the most trash in the village. My team lost. We also helped paint tires and the walls on the outside of the community center. It was a lot of fun. In the traditional village we had a naming ceremony, where we received new names and became apart of their village. My name is Yaa Tsoeke, which means to forgive. That resonated with me a lot because there are people in my life that I need to forgive. We also donated about $5000 worth of school supplies. But what is most interesting about these two vastly different experiences we had was people’s opinions about it. One guy in my group made a comment about how he preferred the kids at Basics because it seemed like they had goals and they were taking advantage of the opportunities given to them. He said this because at the end of our experience in the traditional village we had a lot of kids asking us for money. However, they also asked for water and pens. I really didn’t understand why he couldn’t seem to empathize with these kids. Clearly if one group of kids are living in an urban area and the other is living in a remote area, the playing field is not leveled. The kids in the urban area had a program like basics whereas the elders needed cement to build a community center in the traditional village. That was just an upsetting and disappointing comment to hear.
During the whole trip, I felt extremely connected to Africa. And I think that had a lot to do with everyone in Ghana being extremely hospitable. I’ve been reading a lot about pan-africanism, and I was starting to form my own opinions on the matter. But, nothing compares to actually being in Africa and being accepted as a member of the community. It felt good to learn about a culture and a history that could potentially belong to my ancestors. We visited the Elmina slave castle, which was an extremely emotional experience. While it felt good to learn about a culture and a history that could potentially belong to my ancestors, I also felt overwhelmed with sadness. We went into this one room called the “Room Of No Return,” and all I kept thinking was that it was unfair that I got to turn around and leave. My ancestors didn’t get the choice. Furthermore, it felt good not to be considered a minority for once. Here at NYU, I feel like I’ve been struggling because I’ve been one of two black people in the room. But in Ghana, my brown skin didn’t serve as an outlier, but rather as something that helped me build a sense of camaraderie with everyone in the room. It was something I haven’t felt in a long time. It was comforting.
On the other side of that was a friend of mine who is of mixed race. Her skin is lighter, she is considered fair skin. And while I did see advertisements for skin lightening creams and techniques, it appeared to me that darker skin was valued in the society. I gather this from my interaction with the men. As I talked about earlier I attracted a lot of attention from the men, but she did not. She and I both noticed. She made various comments on the matter, most being jokes. She said that at the market someone came up to her and said that she “needed coco butter for her yellow skin.” She also talked a lot about feeling unwelcomed because of her skin color. I couldn’t help but feel bad because I know this trip meant a lot to her, as she just discovered she is part Ghanaian. But also a part of me did not sympathize with her. In the United States, as well as most areas of the world, fair skin is favored. The default representation of black women in the media is light skin women with long hair, it’s an image that is only recently beginning to change. I found myself sometimes getting annoyed at her comments because this was only for a week, this wasn’t permanent. Her skin color only dubbed her less beautiful for a week. After this, she would go back to being the favored one. Whereas, I was dealing with the reverse. I struggled with and will continue to struggle with my whole life as dark skin and “nappy” hair is considered to be less attractive. I’m not saying that she didn’t have a right to be upset, because she did. No woman or femme should be made to feel unwanted. I just wanted to note that this whole not feeling desirable thing was an unfortunate burden that dark skin women bear without complaint all too often.
Overall, I had a lovely time in Ghana. I didn’t find my prince, but I learned a lot about myself as well as the people around me on this trip. Every Ghanaian child that I met this week, regardless of economic status appeared to be enjoying their life. It was this assumed comfortability with life that they had. I never heard any of them complain. Granted, my statements could be tainted because I was only in those villages for about a day, and these were children. Children tend to be more positive than adults. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. I can only aspire to be that happy. I can only aspire to live my life that content. I need to live in the moment a little more because everything can’t be planned, and everything won’t go right. I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. I could really picture myself living in Africa somewhere down the line.