Accra is the capital of the West African country, Ghana.
My volunteer group flew into Accra on June 16; almost 24 hours total flying time, and a roller-coaster ride landing. We arrived in the dead of night and had to use our torches to lead us around. The next day, we ate jollof rice and plantains at the University of Accra, sleeping amongst spiders and non-working toilets in their dormitories.
The second time I went to Accra was about four weeks into our volunteer experience. It was a long-weekend stay, and we explored the art markets, the local restaurants. We stocked up on Western groceries to take back with us – Pepsi, Snickers bars, cheese, powdered milk. I thought I’d been ripped off on a sale at a local market, I paid more money for an ebony wood statue than I should have. I remember crying in the back of the tro-tro because I’m usually sensible when it comes to spending.
The last time I traveled to Accra was at the end of August. My group had traveled around the shoreline of Ghana, visiting Cape Coast, Elmira and Takoradi. We spent time on the beach and ate luxurious meals at Big Millie’s campground. There were white pineapples to be eaten every day. I remember being worried because I’d have six days between returning to the United States and going back to college. I had no time to detox, no time to process my reverse culture-shock.
I would like to go back some day, and see what it’s like to really live in Ghana’s capital city.
This is an interesting piece for Matador that has sparked some debate. What is the author trying to portray here? Is this another example of “White person dominating developing nation’s customs”? Is she merely using the people and place as a backdrop to tell her own story? How do you distinguish when a travel piece is no longer about the travel, and more about personal glorification?
This piece could have taken a disastrous turn, but I think the author did well to keep a low-profile. I personally connected with the story because I also practiced West African drumming in Ghana. It’s not easy, and it’s also hard to engage in. Drumming in Ghana is a male-dominated art. The women dance, which is a challenging in itself, but the men drum. A local will never deny you the chance to practice drumming if you are an outsider, but to show this craft in front of others is not always socially acceptable.
More people began to fill in the clearing. When there was quite a crowd assembled, the master drummer pulled me over to his group and handed me the bell. “What!?” I exclaimed with wide eyes. He said something quickly in the language I had only just come to recognize and ushered me to a seat next to one of the drummers. I looked around frantically for my translator. I wasn’t ready to play the bell. The bell was the most important instrument in any drum ensemble because it kept the time for all of the drummers. If the bell player got off beat, everyone got off beat. I knew the rhythm they were about to play. It was a rhythm for Afa, the god who acts as the go between for the other gods. I knew the rhythm, knew the song they would sing. But I wasn’t ready to play it in front of a huge crowd of people. The noises of the crowd died down and it was too late to protest. The master drummer made eye contact with me and nodded. I began to play.
What do you think about her writing? I found it to be very compelling. Do you think she could have changed it in any way?
Link to the essay:
In Ghana, mangoes are the size of American footballs.
I feel like mangoes are overrated in the United States. They are puny and expensive, some kind of “exoticised” fruit that in fact is very commonplace in Miami, or the local Hispanic market down the street from my apartment. Mango milkshakes, mango puree, mango Italian ice…something about the mango makes Americans think they are gourmands for eating something other than an apple or an orange.
I had no idea mangoes grew on trees until I lived in Ghana. Mango trees look like they would thrive on an alien planet, growing from a thin vine downward toward the ground, snapping off when just ripe. We had a mango tree in our yard at the villa, their waxy, green-red skin greeting us each morning as we left for work, dripping with dew from the morning mist.
In America, one mango feeds one person. In Ghana, we cut one mango each morning to feed ten people. They smelled so fragrant, and their flesh was so soft, so pliable, it slithered down your throat and rested in your stomach in a comforting way. In Ghana, there is nothing like the taste of a fresh mango.
We leave Ghana in one week.
I’ve been here for almost three months. This volunteer trip did not pan out at all like I’d expected, although I am surprisingly grateful for the result. It’s a lesson in expectations; don’t have any before you leave, and your trip will be better than you thought.
And now, it’s time to celebrate. Although the celebration is somewhat ambiguous to me; our volunteer assignment was to teach women’s micro-enterprise to a village in the Volta region, but it seemed the jewelry and soap-making business for the women of Atabu is already set up and working quite nicely by the time we arrive. So the long, hot days are spent working side-by-side with these women, not so much “teaching” them micro-enterprise but engaging in a wonderful exchange of ideas and cross-cultural comparisons.
I think Ghanaians just like to party in general. Sombre events in the United States are totally reversed in Ghana. Catholic mass is a celebration of Christ with loud music, dancing, singing and colorful outfits. Even funerals are more of a celebration of life than they are of death; the community wears black and red to represent the deceased and escort the body through the connecting villages in a tricked-out van. I almost took it for a holiday parade, based on the elaborate costumes, painted vehicle and processional singing that went along with it.
So today, we are celebrating women. Feminism and the working female is still a distant concept for many in Ghana, but progress is definitely evident. We have spent three months side-by-side with the women of Atabu and it will be hard to leave our friends behind, these women who are so incredibly strong and smart and able, much more than our American laziness can compare to. These women need not worry about “empowerment” for much longer – they are more powerful than they know.
There has been a lot of buzz lately surrounding safety and the independent traveller after Sari Sierra, a 33-year old woman from New York City, was discovered dead near some ruins in Istanbul, Turkey. It was her first time out of the country and she was traveling alone. Many criticized her decision to travel on her own as a woman, which was countered by a wave of solo traveller backlash, but the point remains – what does it mean to be a safe traveller?
You can prepare and research a place all you want, but no matter where you are, there may be times when you’ve felt unsure or unsafe. It could be in a big city like London, or a rural Asian fishing village. Most times we return home unscathed, but every so often, something triggers the emotion of fear within us. You can create a very compelling travel story based on an event where you weren’t 100% sure about your well being.
Write about a time where you felt unsafe while traveling.
Below you can read a vignette I’ve written as an example, to get you started. Feel free to leave your story in the comments section, or send me an email and maybe I’ll feature yours next week!
They shut the electricity off every other day in Ghana.
The government blames it on a drought in Lake Volta, which is Ghana’s largest source of power, but Stephanie thinks it’s more of a political move to garner votes for the upcoming presidential election. Regardless of who is right, the sun sets at 6:00pm on the dot, and Ghana becomes a thick curtain of black.
Growing up in New York City I never experienced complete and total darkness like I do here in Ghana. There is always a source of light somewhere, this weird purple-red haze that sits above the buildings, blocking out the stars, like a natural ceiling filled with light pollution. But when it gets dark in Ghana, you can’t see the space before you, even when the moon is out. It’s eerie.
The rest of the group left the internet cafe early, but I remained behind for an extra hour to catch up on personal matters. I volunteered to pick up some groceries – bread, eggs, bags of water – but the enchantment of the internet caught up with me, and soon I saw that the sun was setting. My flashlight was at the villa and if I was going to make it back before everything turned black, I had to leave now.
The sun set quicker than I thought that day; in an instant it seemed as though the world had been swallowed up. I feel nervous walking back to the village – most of the stores have close up, and I still haven’t bought the bread. They warned against walking around Hohoe alone at night, in the dark, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. What if I get robbed? Kidnapped? Someone could swoop out in an instant and take me away, hold me for ransom. Even if I yelled for help, the robber would decree in his native language that I was only joking, he knows me, we’re good friends. And then, I’d be gone.
I see a little shack with a single light bulb running, pumped by a generator. There is a skinny boy standing at a table, where he is selling loaves of bread. Anxiously, I walk up to him and buy two loaves.
“You are from America?” he asks. His smile is large and welcoming.
I nod. “Yes, that’s right.”
“You like Ghana?”
“I do,” I reply, but I’m anxious to leave.
“We love you!” he tells me. I’ve never seen him in my entire life, not a day since being here. And I’ve been here for almost three months. “You are a superstar, thank you for liking my country!”
Suddenly, a gaggle of little Ghanaian children swarm around me. But not in a scammy way, like how beggar children will enclose an innocent tourist and demand money. No, these children are hugging me, smiling, singing songs, saying they love me. Not one of them goes for my daypack. Not one of them asks me for money.
“They like you,” the boy at the table says. “Because you are nice. They want to walk you home.”
It’s then that I realize how most people are good people, and not out to hurt you, and that these people have so much more to worry about than stealing some little white girl. Because everyone in this village knows everyone else and everything that goes on, and they are protective of visitors, and each other. Word would get out fast. I wouldn’t be missing for long.
The fear subsides, and I walk home alongside seven talkative Ghanaian kids. Sometimes, the hold my hand.