I am sitting at the living room table sipping room temperature black coffee. I leave in two days, 3am Friday morning. I have a week’s amount of work to cram into the next 48 hours… one more final paper, a presentation, two exams, a last half-day interning, and packing.
All I want to do is take my camera and run around Accra for one last time. I do not know when I will be back here, if ever. Not that I didn’t have a great experience studying abroad, but traveling to Africa is a bit harder than going to other destinations.
I won’t sugar coat my experience here. Parts of this semester were really, really difficult. Not having power for 24 hours at a time, or internet, or A/C, or clean running water got old. Always having to cradle my purse to my chest as I walked down the streets was tiresome and inconvenient. I never want to eat another banana again, and I am heading straight to the dermatologist when I get back to New York to check for melanoma. Going to the hospital four times in four months (only food poisoning and allergic reactions) was terrifying, and having cab drivers cheat me on prices every other day turned me into a schizophrenic. Also, living with just eleven other people for four months almost transformed me into Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining.
But, all of those difficulties were balanced with incredible experiences. I saw the most beautiful beaches, jungles, deserts, men and women. I worked with the most amazing people during my internship, and I never would have thought that coming to Accra would be so life-altering in terms of my future career goals. I came here for two separate reasons that don’t work well together. I came here to be challenged, and I was. I came here to take time to relax and breathe, and I did.
I really needed this time abroad to take a step back from my life back home. I needed to understand what I really wanted and to see what was really important. Accra did that for me, and so much more.
I am very bad with changing environments, which is pretty crazy since I travel so much. Even though I am ready to return to the first world, I am scared to leave behind my peaceful lifestyle here. I know that I have learned a lot of important lessons here that will benefit my daily routine back in New York. But I can’t wait to see my friends and family and regurgitate what I have seen. I will miss you, Accra.
When I chose to come to Ghana, I wanted an escape. I needed a completely new environment to take a step back, look around, and breathe. This was my second semester studying abroad, so I took my past advice and applied it again. I knew the semester would fly by. I knew I had to take advantage of everything. But, I also knew I had to slow down. Whenever I go somewhere new, I get so excited and wound up that I end up hitting a brick wall. Knowing this all helped, but for the most part, I was pretty unprepared for the surprises Ghana had in store for me.
I can confidently say, especially after studying abroad in Berlin last year, that Ghana is not the typical ‘semester abroad’ experience. Before coming to Ghana, I had gone to the hospital for an emergency twice, maybe three times. This semester I had visited four times. My first tip for studying abroad in Ghana is that you have to know how to take care of yourself. Everyone on the program has gotten sick at least once, and that’s just the way it is. Even though one day I had hysterically convinced myself that I had ebola, for the most part I knew I was going to live every time I got sick. I just had to learn how to power through it and be more careful about what I consumed and when to take my malaria pills.
My second tip is to be patient. I thought I had learned how to be patient in Europe… I was wrong. Ghanaian Time runs on an entirely different clock than that in the West. Forget about rushing–no one is even concerned about efficiency. That word doesn’t exist. But no one here is bothered by that. Thankfully, I really don’t mind sitting in one spot for hours, spacing out while I wait for fried chicken. And when I know that every meeting will run forty minutes late, or that a three hour car ride really means a seven hour car ride, I can relax. It was a little hard at first, but now I will never get stressed out when something is beyond my control.
My last tip is to stay light hearted, and try to have fun in every situation. Ghanaians are very happy people, and even in the most dire situations, I have never seen a Ghanaian get frustrated or yell. I think this can be very frustrating for Americans, especially New Yorkers, because it is hard for us to remain calm and not get frustrated. This tip also applies to the nightlife here. For the most part, the clubs in Accra are very bougie, vacant, and don’t play the best music. People here only party between midnight and 3Am. There are not very many bars, and the local beers taste like diluted acid. Again, maybe it’s because I studied abroad in Berlin and experienced the world’s best nightlife, but I had a pretty hard time adjusting to this new scene. I had to learn to have fun wherever I went, and now I don’t care where I end up or if a club is empty. Just being in Africa is thrilling enough.
Studying in Ghana is an extremely rewarding, but sometimes it can seem like the most difficult place to live in. Thankfully, when times are tough, you can buy a mango and sit on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Ghana is a great study abroad site, and it is an experience you won’t be able to recreate anywhere else.
In Ghana, the majority of people ride tro tros for public transportation. A tro tro is a minibus that travels back and forth on a certain route, picking up people and dropping them off wherever they please.
My friend Will and I decided to go on one last weekend adventure before the end of the semester. We decided to go to Kokrobite, a small beach village 40 minutes away from Accra, for one night. We didn’t really know how to get there, but we decided to just hop on a tro tro going in that general direction and ask the people around us for directions. We spaced out and ended up about five stops past the Kokrobite junction, in a town called Kasua. The tro tro turned around to return to Accra, and the driver promised us to let us know when we were at our stop.
As we headed down the main road, Will and I heard bellowing chants drifting through the tro tro windows from far off in the distance. I turned to him, whispering, “We have to go see what is happening!!!!” He agreed, eyes bursting with excitement. We have been told how big funerals and naming ceremonies in Ghana can get, and we assumed these chants were coming from one of these two options. I waved to the tro tro driver to let us out on the side of the road. “There is something we have to see over there!” I exclaimed. Mystified, he pulled over and we hopped out of the minibus.
We were stranded, in the middle of no where, with no visible town or car in sight. For some reason, in the moment I didn’t think twice about this. After being in Ghana for four months, I’m used to acting in the moment to take advantage of my stay here. I remember looking across the highway and watching the enormous orange sun slowly set behind the empty warehouses in the horizon. I didn’t want to be stranded out here after dark, so we got a move on. Weaving between the red hills in the opposite direction from the road, Will and I stumble towards the chanting like moths attracted to a glimmering lightbulb. We walk around a bend and, once on the other side of a hill, we saw a gigantic open warehouse packed with about 5,000 people waving white scarfs. We learned that it was some sort of religious ceremony that only takes place once a year. I tied fabric around my body to create an ‘avant-garde’ conservative dress, and we headed into the crowd. We were chastised for trying to take videos, but I managed to sneak the photo above.
It is easy to feel sheltered in Accra, since it is such a cosmopolitan and westernized city. However, everytime I have acted on a whim and followed my instinct, I have seen incredible things here. I don’t mean to make Africa (or any culture besides my own) seem ‘otherworldly’, but moments like these I truly feel like I am on the moon. I love this unsettling and astonishing feeling of being truly amazed and breathless.
For Easter break, my friend Aashna and I decided to travel to Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. We decided to fly there from Accra, which would take about 45 minutes, rather than take a series of buses across the coast for ten hours. I had read online that one could just buy a visa at the airport for Cote D’Ivoire, and since I had been to Togo and purchased my visa at the Ghana-Togo border, I didn’t question it.
We were excited for our trip. All we really knew about Abidjan was that the people spoke french, the beaches were even more beautiful than the ones in Ghana, and we could eat great pasta. The only aspect of the journey we were nervous for was the warning posted by the U.S. Embassy about going out in public on the Easter holiday.
After a very stress-free morning of flying, we were in the Abidjan airport going through customs. At the passport counter, a man flipped through my passport and then stared at me. “No visa,” I stated confidently. He pointed over to Aashna. “Yes, zero visa.” He collected both of our passports and handed them to a police man who spoke broken english. “Please,” he said, “the doors.” He wanted us to leave customs. “But, what about the passports?” I asked. “I come. Small.”
So far, this definitely wasn’t the weirdest experience I had had in Africa, so Aashna and I stepped through the doors and waited, eyes rolling. After a few minutes the policeman appeared and took us through the entire airport, through three sets of glass doors, and up two staircases to a long, ominous hallway. On the right side were rows and rows of small offices, and on the left side was a thick cement wall that didn’t quite touch the ceiling.
We were directed into an office filled with policemen. They all took turns flipping through our passports. “Please, where is your visa?” they kept asking, over and over.
“Can we buy one?”
“What you say?”
“We read online that we could BUY A VISA. That must be possible.”
This conversation repeated itself about ten more times. At one point, I took my phone out and recorded a video of five police officers yelling at each other/us in french and waving their hands. Aashna and I were extremely patient. Of course things weren’t going to go smoothly here. What were we thinking? Things have rarely gone smoothly this semester, but we’ve always been fine in the end. So we waited.
Aashna and I were taken into another office with a policeman who reminded me of The Shadow Man from the Disney movie Princess and the Frog. “Soo…” he drawled. “We will keep your passports, and when you return you will receive your passports. This is the only way.” “Absolutely not,” we barked. “We will pay you a fee, but we will not leave our passports behind.”
After four hours of arguing with the policemen, getting dragged into numerous offices, and looking up french phrases for “bribe” and “fee” while An African City (Ghanaian Sex and the City) played on a little TV, the same policeman who tried to keep our passports sat us down in his office. “I talked to my supervisor,” he said. “I will allow you to keep your passports and leave the airport, for a special fee.” Aashna and I were preparing to pay around 100 US dollars each, but we decided to start with a very small amount. I slapped two 10,000 CFA bills on his desk. “Ohh no no, this is no good.” I slapped down one more 10,000 CFA bill. “Mmmmmmm…. ok yes, please you are free.” Aashna and I ran out of the airport.
We each paid 25 US dollars to bribe our way into Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire.
Apparently, Ghana is ranked one of the friendliest countries in the world. Ghanaians are well known for their hospitality and extroversion. As an introvert and a female, I found this intense welcomeness towards foreigners very off-putting at first. Even now, I sometimes have trouble understanding why Ghanaians will come up to me and play the 20 questions game. The possibilities flicker through my head–I’m either in trouble, he/she is trying to sell me something, or he/she is just genuinely interested in my background. The latter is usually the correct answer.
There are also times when I am incessantly hit-on by Ghanaian men in nightclubs. “You are my best friend!” one will say. “Best friends make time for each other.” I always ask myself, how can this complete stranger say we are best friends? How many best friends does he have?
No matter how many words we exchange, our lives are still completely foreign to one another. I can go down the list and describe my hometown, my college, my interests, and the Ghanaian college student can do the same, but since we are from such different places it is hard to break down the stranger-barrier. Our imaginations can only do so much, unless you meet a stranger who can actually see your past and future.
Last weekend, I traveled up to northern Ghana near the border of Burkina Faso. We were all taken to different diviners to have our fortunes and futures told. My diviner, named Kaya, did not speak english and so his translator sat to the left of me as I kneeled on a rug, parallel to Kaya. We were all sitting in a mud hut in a very small community outside of Tamale. The room was filled with melted wax candles, books, wooden chairs, and different objects decorating the shrine. There was a huge pile of sand in front of Kaya, and once I whispered my wishes and dreams into a 5 Cedi bill (something along the lines of “I hope the rest of my life remains this weird”), he started doodling with his fingers. Once the marks in the sand were placed, he precariously stacked a couple of bones on top of each other and had me whisper my name four times into a bowl. He placed the bowl over the bones, draped my hand over the bowl, and started chanting. I lifted my hand, and Kaya lifted the bowl, and the bones were completely scattered in different positions. Kaya started to tell me everything about my life.
The translator said, “Your mom loves you so much.” Ok, I thought. They are definitely telling the truth. I’m obsessed with my mom.
He kept going. “Were you just in the hospital?” Yes, I had pretty bad food poisoning… “Has your dad sent you money?” Yeah, he sent me a small check in the mail for a treat. “You and your sister fight a lot but she loves you dearly.” Well, yes we definitely fight a lot…
And then Kaya screams. “YOU ARE GOING TO BE THE RICHEST WOMAN IN THE WORLD! DO NOT FORGET ABOUT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
For the second book assignment I read Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa by Tanya Shaffer. Similar to the first book I read, Black Gold of the Sun, this is another memoir based on travels throughout Ghana. But since Shaffer is a woman born in California with no connection to Ghana (other than the desire to travel somewhere new), I could relate more to her experiences. However, most of the time I found her incredibly frustrating.
Shaffer’s idea of immersing herself into the Ghanaian culture meant that she was eager to taste the local food, sleep under the stars on the beach, and learn a few words in Twi. I do not disagree with trying things that the locals physically do, but when it comes to being openminded about other opinions, Shaffer is quick to preach her beliefs and place them above all others. One example is accepting food that is offered from a Ghanaian home to their guests. Shaffer complains, “I’m not a large person, and in the heat, my appetite had diminished. Furthermore, in spite of years of feminist self-education, I have as much body image baggage as the next American female. Being forced to eat past the point of fullness brought up all my adolescent angst” (83). I have experienced the same pain of eating to the point of explosiveness, but I understood that this is part of the culture. Ghanaians do not have foreigners in their homes every single day, and they also don’t have to same ‘American feminist education’, and instead think that the fatter a woman is the more beautiful she is. Shaffer constantly complained of little cultural values such as this one, and what I couldn’t stand was that she did not realize that this was a temporary situation, and she would soon be back in the comfort of first world hospitality.
Another cultural value in Ghana that is hard for westerners to accept is that it is not socially acceptable to be gay or lesbian. My professor, frustrated with the influence of western ideals, explained to us that first we brought religion and conservative values, but ever since the west had decided that being gay was acceptable, Ghana is chastised by the west for not keeping up. Shaffer talks about meeting a gay couple, Kojo and Bengo. Kojo asks her about homosexuality in San Francisco while Bengo is out of the room. “His eyes met mine, then, for a quick moment. ‘And they can live there, as they are, openly?’ His tone was querulous, disbelieving. ‘Yes, they can.’ I looked at Kojo’s smooth face, struggling to contain my curiosity. ‘You and Bengo,’ I said suddenly, ‘are you lovers?’ Kojo looked at me in terror. He shook his head violently. ‘Please,’ he whispered” (159).
I find her version of travel and the people she meets idealized, lacking a political awareness, that heightens tenderness and makes it saccharine, easier to swallow. But there are a few parts of Shaffer’s story that I could relate to. The men in Ghana, even the non-Ghanaians, all seem to incessantly hit on the foreign women here, and after a while being the ‘rejector’ takes its toll. Shaffer talks about the guilt that she felt every time she would turn a romantic offer away, thinking that maybe she was missing out on an experience. After having turned so many men down in the past few months, I (and my fellow female classmates) started to feel that maybe I am the one who is wrong. Thankfully, this guilt doesn’t last, because I see the rejected men hit on several girls two minutes later.
Patience. The food will get here in an hour or so–in the meantime, enjoy the restaurant’s fan and be grateful they have enough power to use it. Look at all of the Ghanaians around you, sitting in these plastic chairs, spacing out under the intense heat, lazily glancing towards the TV that plays hip hop music videos on repeat. Look at that girl’s hair–I heard that to get those kinds of braids, you had to sit for six hours while two women wove those mile-long extensions into your scalp. If she can endure those nonstop six hours for a new hairstyle, you can wait a short hour for your lunch to arrive.
Accra is bright, confusing, and unshakably rhythmic. If you can’t live according to the Ghanaian rhythm, you will have a difficult time here.
The key to Ghana is patience. Once you have understood that you will be waiting around for everything, you can open yourself up to the spirit of Ghana. You will be able to appreciate all of the colors, from the bright yellow bananas on every corner to the playful, print-clashing Ghanaian fashion. As you wait in a taxi during the bumper-to-bumper traffic that seems to consume the city four times a day, you will catch yourself shaking your head to the Azonto music blasting from every car down the block.
It is a faux pas to make a fuss about the slowed-down beat in Ghana. Ghanaians can endure anything, and they always find a way to have fun in any situation, even if it isn’t the most efficient way.
Sometimes, I will go to the beach and watch the fishermen pull in a net from the shore. As they organize themselves in a line and reel in the rope, the fishermen will shake their butts and sing at the top of their lungs. I like to imagine the fish in the net being tossed around to the beat of the rope being pulled.
Some of these daily routines have to totally rely on rhythm, or else all chaos will ensue. To make “Fu Fu”, a local dish, a ball of crushed yams and plantains is placed in a bowl. One person has a giant stone pillar that they use to crush the ball in the bowl, and the other person reaches his/her hand into the bowl to flip the ball every time the pillar is lifted. Fu fu makers do this very quickly, and there is no way you could do this if you have bad rhythm, otherwise your hand will be crushed by the stone.
Like I said before, Ghana is not exactly the most efficient country. I have probably spent the majority of my time this semester just waiting for something. But I think, with the amount of colors, speakers, dancing, smiling, and general spontaneity, efficiency would completely kill the Ghanaian spirit. That would be no fun.
The contemporary art scene in Ghana is still very… underground. There is one art museum in Accra, where the photo above was taken, but I would not compare it to the MoMa or even to any art gallery in the Western world. This museum, the Artist Alliance, collects such a large amount of art from West African artists that it doesn’t even have enough room in the storage or basement to contain it all. The walls are plastered with paintings from the first floor all the way up to the fourth floor, including the hallways and the spiral staircase walls. When I walked into the Artist Alliance, I was greeted by an assortment of Ghanaian coffins–a fish, shoe, train, bottle of toothpaste, and a leopard–with no description displayed. All of the artwork was covered in a thin layer of dust, and about 1/3 of the paintings were hanging crookedly. The artwork itself was interesting and expertly detailed, but I knew that there was more art in Ghana than just this one museum.
After living here for eight weeks, I have learned that all of the traditional Ghanaian artwork is in the markets. There are baskets full of hand-painted glass beads, hand-carved wooden tribal masks representing different spirits and beliefs, and alleyways stuffed with rolls of batik and kente fabrics. The art world here hasn’t separated itself from the real world yet. Ghanaians are simply engrained with the idea that art is intertwined into everyday life. This is also the reason why the art hasn’t been elevated to represent or provoke underlying messages, and why there is no elitist ‘art scene’. Ghanaians take their daily routines and decorate them. That is where the art is found.
Although it isn’t a specific piece of artwork, my favorite art in Ghana is the batik clothing. Batik fabrics are pieces of cloth that are dyed, pressed with wax for decoration, and re-dyed, like an easter egg. The colors are usually very light, subtle, and in pastel shades. During a typical month in my internship, I’ll get to see the entire process of a batik fabric being dyed and turned into a garment, and then worn by a Ghanaian model for the online editorials and look books. It creates a much more of an intense relationship with my environment for me because I am apart of this entire artistic process, rather than just going to a museum and being inspired by a finished product.
Similar to how van Gogh paints the night sky after he has described it to his sister, I can see how the different batik fabrics are inspired by the Ghanaian environment. Van Gogh explained, “The night is even more richly colored than the day…if only one pays attention to it, one sees that certain stars are citron yellow, while others have a pink glow or green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expiating on this theme, it should be clear that putting little white dots on a blue-black surface is not enough.” (page 17) In Ghana, the only way to find a representation of the environment as detailed as van Gogh’s representation of the night sky is to look at the beads, fabrics, instruments and decorations that are apart of the everyday Ghanaian life.
In general, when I am in a new city, I try really hard to torpedo myself into it’s authentic back region. As long as I do my research, spend my first few days/weeks making mistakes, seeing what the locals wear and asking them where to go, I think it is relatively easy to find the authenticity of a place. I am not interested in the façade of a city’s touristic image, because, as MacCannell describes Goffman’s theory in Staged Authenticity, “sustaining a firm sense of social reality requires some mystification” aka a “false reality” (591).
That being said, when I came to Accra, it took me much longer to even get a close encounter near the back regions. It took me a very long time to realize that, “Stage 6: Goffman’s back region; the kind of social space that motivates touristic consciousness” (598), will probably never be attainable here. There are just too many ways in which I stick out as a tourist, an outsider. I was feeling cheated knowing that the majority of places I go to were ‘tourist traps’.
There was one night when I came close to the back region of the Ghanaian nightlife; probably the closest I’ll ever get. I went with two other students to go hang out with our newfound Guinean friends. We were very excited that we had finally made friends with the locals who actually just wanted friendship; nothing more. They told us to meet them at a club called Vienna, which we had never heard of. As we drove 30 minutes out of the city center and pulled up to a rather dark building, I read the colossal banner above the club entrance. “EBOLA IS REAL: NO KISSING NO HUGGING WASHING HANDS”. Below the banner I saw a line of prostitutes dressed up in sailor outfits. I was ecstatic to finally experience a real night in Accra. However, walking into the club, I noticed that most of the eyes glance our way immediately, even if just for a fleeting moment. The bartender had handed me a clean glass and opened my beer for me, while he merely shoved the bottles at the other regular patrons. I will never be able to escape Accra’s projection of it’s front regions. It’s as if I transform the back regions into the front regions just by my presence as an incredibly obvious tourist.
Now, I have reached the half-way point of my semester in Ghana. And it’s taken me this long to realize that reaching “Stage 6” will never become a reality. This realization has allowed me to enjoy most touristy, westernized places in Accra. One of the most relaxing days I had here was in an old colonial house converted into a french restaurant/lounge. I ordered a chocolate cake and a large Evian, and tanned by the pool for five hours while soundtracks from Hotel Costes played in the background. I didn’t care that this place was designed specifically for westerners such as myself. If I can’t get into the back regions of Accra, I at least want to go to the touristy places that don’t pretend to be something they are not.
I read Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun. Although he was born in London, Eshun’s parents were raised in Ghana. Eshun had spent his childhood and adolescence troubled by his unexplainable sense of homelessness… He could not understand why he was unable to satisfactorily answer the simple question, “where are you from?” with neither London nor Ghana. Although Eshun had spent some of his childhood in Accra, at 33-years-old, he needed to travel back to Ghana to find his “home”. This book intertwines his memoir, Africa’s political history, and travel journal into one.
When he returned to Accra, Eshun was particularly confused by the dichotomy of Western influences in the city, and even more personally, dealing with being a black foreigner in Africa while trying to simultaneously transform Ghana into his home. While listening to a Ghanaian tour guide complain about his African-American clients, Eshun observed, “I looked at the [Ghanaian] guides in their basketball vests and Nike sneakers. America for them meant Kobe and Shaq and Michael Jordan. Across from them stood the tourists. In their eyes Africa was the land of enduring wisdoms. They were its lost kings and its Nubian princesses. Both groups saw in the other a reflection of their own dreams. Africa and America converged in the car park, each searching the other’s eyes for a glimpse of jungle or glittering skyscraper.” (41) Another example of neo-colonization that bewildered Eshun when he first arrived to Accra was popularity of American hip hop among Ghanaians, who could not necessarily relate to the overall message of the music. But then, back home in London, he witnessed some of his peers, whose families came from Jamaica, handing out pamphlets promoting Africa as the true motherland. (This weekend, I was personally thrown off when I saw a drone hovering above me on a sandy beach in Busua, Ghana).
Eshun also writes about his past, and tells one story about his troubled relationship with a girl named Hannah. He explains, “I’ve had relationships with several women since Hannah, but solitude remains more familiar to me than intimacy.” (30) Solitude, it seemed, had become Eshun’s relationship of choice. As Hannah had shared stories of her family, her childhood, her fears and her dreams, Eshun was never able to fully expose his own confused past, and ended up driving her away.
Eshun’s older brother seemed to be the only one to truly understand what he was going through and offer some sage advice. Eshun asked, “‘Have you ever thought about going back to Ghana? Sometimes I wonder if we’d be more at home there.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘That’s not the point. I’m not interested in trying to reclaim some idea of the past. It’s a mistake to assume that you can go back to some kind of motherland. That doesn’t exist. The only thing is to create a place of your own where you feel at home.'” (220)