How Studying Abroad In Ghana Changed My Racial Consciousness

The sense of comfort I felt was foreign.
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This post is by Akintunde Ahmad and originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.

For my entire life, I have viewed the world through the lens of an African-American man. Every action, every thought and every situation, I analyze not only as a person, but as a Black man in America.

Like many minorities in the United States, I’ve experienced life through the spectrum of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “dual consciousness.” By this theory, Black Americans must consider the repercussions of their every action first as human beings, and then as Black human beings in America. I’ve become so accustomed to this over my 20 years of life that I never even considered there could be an alternative. That is, until I began my semester in Ghana.

“Every action, every thought and every situation, I analyze not only as a person, but as a Black man in America.”

On August 10, after 18 hours of travel, I arrived in Accra and made my way to the nearby suburb of Legon to begin my study abroad program at the University of Ghana. While the Ghanaians waiting outside the airport were much more focused on selling me something than welcoming me, I nonetheless felt a sudden sense of comfort completely. It was completely, well, foreign.

For the first time, I was in a country where the color of my skin no longer made me a minority. Yes, I was visiting from the United States, and no, I couldn’t speak any Twi or relate to many of the Ghanaian cultural norms. But that didn’t matter. I felt like I belonged.

My arrival in Ghana supported my theory that many African-American people sensationalize Africa. Those of us who haven’t visited often imagine arriving to a giant celebration with everyone giddily singing “Kumbaya” and expressing happiness that their brothers and sisters from across the sea have returned to the motherland. When I landed, I was just another foreigner coming to visit, but that feeling of finally blending in -– of having my skin color match the majority –- was all I needed. Logically, the foreign languages and the hustle and bustle should have made me a little anxious or stressed But they didn’t. I felt at ease in the midst of it all.

“For the first time, I was in a country where the color of my skin no longer made me a minority.”

Settling into my new home for the semester, I began recognizing parallels to my hometown of Oakland, California: Women were addressed as “sister,” “auntie,” and “mother,” and I too had been raised calling my friends’ mothers “mom” and older women “auntie” or “sis.”

I saw echoes of Oakland’s highly specific dance culture in Ghana’s parties and clubs. The vendors in Accra, with their high spirits and go-getter attitudes, reminded me of flea markets in the Bay Area, but times ten on the enthusiasm meter. While the transatlantic slave trade may have separated millions of African Americans from our African languages and traditional cultures, the drive engraved in our DNA is unassailable, and that’s where I looked to find common ground.

Perhaps it was some combination of my skin tone, the parallel behaviors, and my mindset that contributed to Ghana feeling so comfortable. Not all of my African-American peers found the transition to life in a new country nearly as smooth. The books I read before getting to Ghana helped frame my expectations too. In hindsight, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes should be required reading for any person of the African diaspora traveling to West Africa for the first time.

Banking on taking a break from the standards I’d been living by, I also made a conscious effort to leave my American ideals at home, where they belonged. If you’re looking to live like an American in a foreign country, you’ll likely 1. struggle to enjoy your time there and 2. miss out on the full breadth of a foreign experience.

“Banking on taking a break from the standards I’d been living by, I also made a conscious effort to leave my American ideals at home, where they belonged.”

With only a few months to spend in Ghana, I didn’t want to waste any of the experience gravitating toward Western norms. I find myself looking to the happiness of the people, despite conditions to which I may not be accustomed. Yes, there will be open gutters, the power may cut in and out, and my showers may be cold. People do sometimes function on GMT (Ghana Man Time, which is, in my experience, much worse than Colored People Time). But it’s all part of the package.

I’ve learned that when a Ghanaian person asks how you are doing, he or she is sincerely interested in your response, rather than the rhetorical, all-purpose “Well. How are you?” Being able to connect with people in a deeper way is a wonderful contrast to the surface-level interactions I’m used to having back home.

Over the past few months, I’ve made friends who will ask me how they can help and really truly mean it, and I’ve found myself doing more for others than I ever have. I want to do more and to mean what I say, formalities or not. I’m learning to enjoy moments and interludes spent walking, working and talking. I might wait around for longer or not have a great sense of when things actually start, but I now know what it means to live in the moment.

My time in Ghana is flying by, which is why it’s all the more important to think about what I’m learning. When I return to Yale campus and to my family and friends in Oakland, I’ll do so with the knowledge and experience to support enjoying the little things that happen on a daily basis. I’ll return to a racial landscape in which my skin color has particular implications. But my hope is that my fresh consciousness of what it means to live will actually serve me well.

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Images courtesy of Akintunde Ahmad

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