For our second book assignment, I chose to read Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in Africa and Beyond, by Ekow Eshun. Eshun was born in London to Ghanaian parents. He travels to Ghana at the age of thirty-three to search for an answer to the question, “where are you from?” Black Gold of the Sun tells two stories: one relating to Eshun’s travels in Ghana, and the other about his childhood, told in flashbacks. The entire book serves as a commentary on the search for the real Africa, but there were two specific observations that resonated with me.
At one point during his travels, Eshun stays at a high-end beach resort and befriends the locals. While hanging around a bar one night, he observes the crowd–mainly white tourists–and notes, “If you’re a white backpacker you braid your hair and take drumming lessons because you think that brings you closer to the real Africa. But most Ghanaians go home after work, watch The Cosby Show and dream about living in America. Everyone’s searching for a reality that doesn’t exist” (157). I liked this remark because I think it reflects on how the West classifies Africa as this exotic place, which ultimately makes it impossible to authentically experience its various cultures. The continent is seen as a dangerous, remote place where the people are mysterious because they worship their ancestors. So white backpackers travel to Africa and braid their hair and take drumming lessons, without realizing these practices have been turned into money-making tourist schemes. The people here are smart: they know what white people think is “African,” and easily provide these experiences–for a price. No tourist wants to believe people in Africa spend their time watching The Cosby Show because tribal ceremonies are much more exciting.
After spending a week at the beach resort, Eshun takes a bus to Takoradi–one of the larger coastal cities in Ghana–and stops at a bank to exchange money. He argues with the bank manager because, since it is raining, Eshun is tracking water all over the floor. The manager rudely demands he clean up his mess on hands and knees; when Eshun refuses and the manager notices his British accent, he sincerely apologizes and moves Eshun up to the front of the line. Eshun notes, “my status as a westerner had superseded his position as a provincial bank manager. Once he realized he was outranked, he…backed down” (161). This observation, like the one made in the beachside bar, highlights the clash between Westerners and locals. For some reason, foreigners garner more respect than the average Ghanaian; I have experienced this when dealing with customs officials, restaurant waitresses, and shop owners. There is a desire to please the foreigner because foreign = wealthy and wealthy = powerful. Again, this leads to feigned authenticity, and in Eshun’s case, makes it impossible for him to truly learn about and understand his Ghanaian roots.
Although Eshun is Ghanaian and I am American, I am still able to relate to his search for identity in Ghana. Being in a country where my skin color dictates how I should act and what I should believe in leads to frustration because I can’t fully express myself. Similarly, Eshun’s mannerisms and accent alienate him from people who share his heritage, leading to a disappointing end to his search for home. The experiences related in this book remind travelers that although traveling seems like an escape from everyday life, the experiences we face and lessons we learn abroad can challenge how we define ourselves in ways not possible back home.