I have begun to try doing everything I can to avoid the whole “Where are you from?” conversation, especially with old, white people. I’ll stuff food in my mouth. I’ll stay on the other side of the room long enough that you never get the chance to ask what my name is or what it means. (Do you ever ask a Sam or a Jane what their name means? I think not, because I taught a class of American kids where only one of them knew their name’s meaning. They’d probably have all known earlier if I hadn’t been the first person to ever ask them.) I will wear an American accent until my tongue gets tired. But please don’t… please don’t…
I sighed internally. The woman had just asked me where I lived. I’d thought I could avoid the conversation by telling her I was a college student in this very city, because I wasn’t really sure what she meant. I thought that answer should be satisfactory, but she posed the question again, and so I didn’t know what to do other than tell her. It didn’t occur to me quickly enough to answer flatly, “I live on campus.” After all, I’d have thought that went without saying.
Now see, by now, I’m used to the whole “I had a colleague who went to [insert African country that’s not mine here]” or “My friend gave me the most beautiful [insert artefact here] from [insert African country that’s not mine here]” and a whole plethora of responses that don’t have a damn thing to do with me. (I see the Africans abroad relating across the screen.) So, when this incredibly nice woman began with, “My daughter actually went to…” I tensed immediately.
She continued, “…Ghana, this past summer.”
Well. At least it was my country this time. I tried to replace my deadpan expression with one of polite interest, but politeness has never truly been a strength of mine.
“I see,” I replied.
“She was living around the…Gold Coast area…?” The woman looked at me for confirmation. I was, of course, initially confused by her mention of Ghana’s pre-independence, colonial name. I mean, wasn’t the whole country the “Gold Coast area”? But then it clicked that perhaps she meant:
“Cape Coast?” I suggested.
The woman’s expression remained uncertain. “The place with the slave castles and…”
“Cape Coast,” I confirmed correctively.
She then proceeded to tell me about what her daughter did, having lived with a foster family, learnt about Gold Coast/Ghana’s slave history, taught children English in the village schools and whatnot – the takeaways being that
- It was so good to be able to live in others’ shoes, be concerned with struggles other than your own. (Almost verbatim.)
- It was a life-changing experience. (Almost verbatim.)
I gave some polite equivalent of “Okay,” but I never smiled. I don’t think I had it in me to smile just then.
So far, every single time this has happened, only after the event do I manage to construct a coherent message of what I would like to have said back. It’s usually the very same thing, essentially: You didn’t need to go all the way to Ghana [/other African country/ other “third world” country] for your life to be changed.
It is a bit burdensome, for all my Ghana pride, to be from a country that remains so physically and geographically relevant to the history of the slave trade. It has consequences like making me upset that some of our greatest tourist attractions are fortresses in which events of one of the most gruesome periods in human history took place. Add the slave trade relevance to the fact that it’s a West African country the white world generally assumes to be destitute and very much in need of their contributions (or salvation), and you don’t get a lot of good stuff to work with.
I find myself asking so many questions about charities, missionaries and Study Abroads specifically targeted form the West towards Africa. There seems to be some sort of elevated perverse glory and nobility surrounding it. I feel like participation in these things is almost a fantasy for some people, something to check off their bucket-lists along with “visit the Eiffel tower” or “get on the scariest roller coaster at DisneyWorld.” Right there underneath them, “Teach illiterate African kids English (in a 2-hour lesson that will probably have no lasting consequence on the rest of their lives).” The parts in parentheses, by the way, are written in visible ink, so that the owners of these bucket-lists can’t read them and don’t even realize they’re there.
This would account for how pleased some people appear to be when they talk to anyone about their African gallivanting. I don’t think I ever see that much pride (I’m not saying no pride at all) when people tell you, for example, that they helped out in some schools in the suburbs of their own non-African city, or even that they gave a homeless man $5 on their way to work today.
Here’s my issue. If you really, really wanted to help out with and experience struggles outside of your own, you probably need not do anything greater than step onto your next-door neighbor’s lawn and helpfully engage yourself in their lives. If you think you must fly across the globe to make your existence impactful, you’re mistaken. Secondly, if it took seeing actual slave castles on the coast of West Africa to make you feel the depth of history’s significance, of your own history’s significance even, I fear you have either lived in a detrimental bubble your whole life, or your natural human empathy is a bit defective.
Thirdly, I think there may be elements of unconscious selfishness in this whole notion of travelling to an African country and being “humbled” and exposed to a “different reality” there. For one thing, I suspect some people try to use it as something like a method of atonement, to be absolved of the sins of one’s white ancestors. For another, it seems a bit sketch to me, that there usually appears to be more emphasis on what Africa has done for white people – “changed their lives” and whatnot – than whether anyone at all they came into contact with was positively impacted in a long-lasting way. I’m not saying impacted at all. Yes, you can go and install a water fountain or computer in a school or whatever…but when the thing breaks two months after you’ve returned home, then what? In other words, for all the serving they proudly recount that they engaged in, it seems they are the ones who appear to be coming out of their missions served. By the way, I’ve never even met a non-Ghanaian who can pronounce Sankɔfa correctly. I feel like if I hear “san-koe-fuh” one more time, I might fracture.
I mean, I see you travelling to West Africa to be helpful and experience a different reality, but have you ever been to Harlem? The parts of Chicago where there’s several shootings each night? Flint? the folks around the Dakota pipeline? I mean, seriously. You’re needed as soon as you step out of your backyard. (Also, in the weeks since I wrote this, the Orange One has done a lot more nonsense that needs your attention, if you’re really that interested in saving the world. If your country’s a superpower that just happens to be on fire, you can help the rest of the world by extinguishing it.) If you’re American, French, Belgian, whatever, try finding unfiltered documents about your own country’s history; not just what has been done to it, but what it has done to people. It’s all in your backyard. Plank dey your own eye wey you wan gyei speck for menners demma eyes.
As for missionaries, well… I come from one of the most religious countries in the world (reportedly) with a whole lot of churches and very little Gospel. I went to a Christian school with a whole lot of Religious and Moral Education and very little Jesus…and, might I add, very little sense. I can’t speak for the Muslim fraction because I’m not familiar with it. Either way, all in all, I am left a bit unimpressed when I’m told of non-Africans’ escapades in Africa. I would be far more impressed to meet a person who, after visiting Ghana, can properly pronounce the word Sankɔfa.
[featured image via myjoyonline.com]