Coming Home: No Single Story

It’s been over a week since I got off the plane at PDX and took a big, deep breath of clean Pacific Northwest air. I’m happy to be home, but the transition back to “normal” life hasn’t been as easy as I’d imagined. It’s hard to reconcile all of my Ghanaian experiences with my life and identity in Portland. When people ask about my experience, I struggle to find the words.

I recently re-read this piece that I wrote for StarrFM near the end of my internship. (It was published online, and broadcast on air in a slightly different form.) These words feel like an important reminder right now, as I try to make sense of an incredible six weeks.

In her famous 2009 TED talk, author Chimanda Ngozi Adichie warned against “the dangers of a single story.” Adichie argued that when you “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again. . .that is what they become.” I know that all too often, American media tells a limiting, dehumanizing single story about Africa as a continent.

When I return home to the States next week, people will ask me lots of questions. How was Africa? How was Ghana? As I reflect on my time here, I wonder: how will I respond? What story will I tell?

Six weeks of images and interactions flood my mind as I look for answers, each different from the last.

I think of my weekend in Cape Coast, where I toured two slave castles and faced the horrible legacy of my ancestors. I tried to comprehend the incredible injustice of slavery, and mourned for the human beings held and tortured in the castles’ terrible dungeons – human beings whose slave labor would later build the country I call home. I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with that reality.

Cape Coast Castle.

Cape Coast Castle.

Yet at the same time, I remember reveling in the beauty of the Central Region. My friends and I photographed the colorful boats pushing through the waves in Elmina’s lively fishing villages. We all got sunburns while running through the sand and water.

I think of Kumasi, where statues of cultural figures, not political heroes, adorn the traffic circles. I noticed NPP flags everywhere, and though the streets were quieter and cleaner than Accra’s, the central market bustled with life. Walking through the market, I was swept into a funeral party in the middle of the street. I danced with a crowd of strangers, celebrating the life of someone I will never meet.

Weaving kente cloth in Kumasi.

Weaving kente cloth in Kumasi.

I think of the morning commute in Accra: an hour and a half staring out the window of a tro-tro. Crammed shoulder to shoulder with Ghanaians, I learned my route from home to work: straight down the busy road, right at Flagstaff House, then alight at Nima Junction. I bought bufrots out the window and got a glimpse of life as a professional in Ghana’s capital city.

At work, I experienced Ghanaian government, politics and business first hand, covering events with co-workers who were always ready to answer my questions. I learned about the importance of radio to Ghanaian culture—in the United States, radio has become an afterthought to TV and online media. Here, however, it thrives.

First day of work at StarrFM.

First day of work at StarrFM.

I think of my street in East Legon, where strangers greet you and ask for your number – behavior unheard of in my country. I think of the lush green mountains of the Volta region. I think of handshakes with snaps, calls of “Charley!” and a Club beer on a Friday night.

My neighborhood.

My neighborhood.

I think of my housemates: the 14 other American students who spent these six weeks at their own media internships in Accra. Each has their own unique collection of stories and experiences to take home.

Media in Ghana  cohort, 2016.

Media in Ghana cohort, 2016.

This multitude of examples is proof: like any other nation, Ghana cannot be explained in just one story, or understood in one six-week trip. Neither can Africa as a whole.

When I go home and answer the questions that will certainly come my way, I hope I can convey this to my fellow Americans. My experience in Ghanaian culture has been rich, exciting, and above all, varied. I cannot tell a single story, and I won’t try.

A Tale of Two Elections: Ghana and the United States

Note: This post was originally written for a Ghanaian audience and published on StarrFM online.

As an American voter living in Ghana, I get to observe two fierce political battles unfolding at the same time. I have been following the drama of the American election since the primaries kicked off last summer, but am just now getting familiar with the candidates and issues here in Ghana. My observations are limited by the short time I’ve been here, but I can’t help but compare the Ghanaian election with the presidential race happening in my home country.

Both contests center on two main political parties. The Republicans and Democrats are the United States’ NPP and NDC: two factions fiercely fighting for majority control and promising positive change for the country. The NPP aligns more closely with the conservative Republican party, while the NDC and the Democrats share similar, more liberal policy views.

That being said, Ghanaian parties seem less aggressively ideological than their American counterparts. Also, in the United States, social values are increasingly progressive, but many still support conservative economic policy; it’s not uncommon to hear people declare “I’m socially liberal, but economically conservative!” In Ghana, the trend seems to be the opposite. Both the NDC and NPP support and enact policies that would be considered liberal in the States, yet Ghanaian society as a whole is deeply conservative. This surprised me.

The narratives surrounding the presidential candidates are different, too. In one country, an incumbent challenges a familiar political face. In another, a billionaire takes on a career politician who could potentially be the country’s first female president. Interestingly, in both elections there is a relatively popular outsider with no chance of winning: the PPP’s Paa Kwesi Nduom, and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who made a surprisingly strong run for the Democratic nomination.

Every Ghanaian I have spoken to predicts a close race this year, and mentions the high personal stakes for the candidates: if NDC incumbent John Dramani Mahama loses, he will be the first president of the fourth republic not to win a second term. For the NPP’s Nana Akuffo-Addo, it would be his third loss in a row.  

Nana Akufo Addo, the NPP's opposition candidate.

Nana Akufo Addo, the NPP's opposition candidate.

John Mahama, the incumbent and NDC candidate.

John Mahama, the incumbent and NDC candidate.

In the States, the drama takes a different form. What was supposed to be a standard race between familiar political names (Jeb Bush, brother of former president George W. Bush, was an early favorite to challenge Clinton) has been injected with populism, xenophobia, and tabloid-level theatrics.

The central issues influencing the elections differ too. Ghanaians seek a candidate who will remedy the “Dumsor” power crisis, among other serious issues, and hope for a peaceful election process. For American voters, the battle is over immigration policy, economic plans and deep-set social values.

For Ghana, this election another step toward strengthening a new democracy, and an opportunity to exercise the already strong political engagement in this country. For the United State it is an unprecedented political battle that will likely go down in history for its drama and polarization. In both countries, however, the issues are pressing and the stakes are high.

As I watch both of these election seasons unfold and escalate, I can only hope that after the theatrics of campaigning settle, some of the many political promises are kept. Both of our countries are excellent examples of peaceful democracy, but both suffer from real problems that the government needs to address. I’m counting on the process, and trusting that the best candidates to tackle these issues will be chosen for the challenge. I certainly hope they are, for both Ghana and the United States of America.

Not All Difference Is Created Equal

Note: This post was originally published in July on the Media in Ghana blog

“Obruni! What are you doing?”

I turn my head and wave, my peaceful lunchtime walk interrupted. This is not unusual: strangers stop me and my fellow American students on the street regularly. At worst, they might bestow an uncomfortable compliment, or ask for a visa endorsement. At best, they say “good afternoon” and ask how we are: a sign of this country’s famous hospitality.

After just two weeks in Ghana, I’m already accustomed to turning my head when I hear “obruni.” The word means “foreigner” or “white person.” It isn’t an insult, but rather a category of social fascination. When I hear it, I smile and nod. Occasionally, I’ll reply with the word obibini -- the antonym meaning “Ghanaian native.” This always gets a laugh.

I don’t mind being an obruni, but the word reflects a rather difficult reality of being here. I can never really escape the feeling of being an outsider. This is more than language struggles and basic cultural barriers: I cannot walk down the street, enter a store, or get on a tro-tro without feeling watched. With a single look, everyone around me knows that I don’t belong. In the States, I often have the privilege of passing unnoticed. My appearance (frankly, my race) is the unmarked norm.

“Now I know what it feels like to be a minority.” As a white person in Ghana, this is easy to say. I stand out. I’m asked where I’m from. I’m constantly conscious of my race, and it’s hard.

But this statement isn’t true. Especially in light of the recent horrific police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, along with the other forms of racial violence that occur in the U.S. every day, I have to acknowledge that I will never truly know how it feels to be oppressed and disenfranchised on account of my race.

As a “minority” here, I do not experience implicit bias in hiring processes, or feel that people subconsciously link me with crime and violence. I never fear for my life in the presence of police. On the contrary, there is at times an odd respect for white foreigners woven into Ghanaian hospitality. For example, I am interning at a premier radio station in the nation’s capital city. . . with no previous radio experience. My privilege is hard at work.

This is not to say that my moments of discomfort here are not valid or important. I am learning so much about the way difference affects life. But I am also learning that not all difference is created equal. Even as I navigate the challenges of life as an obruni, I do not want erase the reality of race in the United States. For me, privilege and “blending in” are only a plane ride away. People of color in the US cannot say the same.