Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Homecoming: The story of my return to Ghana
It’s 8:34 pm. The Air Italy plane has just touched down on the runway. A round of applause echoes through the cabin in typical Ghanaian fashion. I chuckle and clap along too. It’s just one more reminder that I’m a long way from Philadelphia. My travels began over 20 hours ago in the wintery temperatures of the northeast so as I deplane, the warmth of the evening is inviting. I peel off my outerwear and watch as other passengers do the same when it hits me—after 19 years, I’m finally back.
I was born in the United States to Ghanaian immigrants who packed up their lives and journeyed to America in the 70s. Like many, they believed that the US could offer far better opportunities for economic success than the newly independent nation of Ghana.
However, obtaining the American dream came with unintended consequences; namely the temptation of first generation American _______ to abandon their heritage.
In my family, this was most evident during our summer vacations back "home." My parents spent 4 long weeks listening to two insolent children complain about almost everything Ghana lacked in comparison to the US. Although these trips failed to foster appreciation for my culture, they at least tethered me to an identity I didn't know I desperately needed. At some point, however, the cost of annual visits, my teenage defiance, or a combination of both ended our family getaways.
This all plays through my mind as I navigate the new international terminal and process through customs. As the welcome band plays high life tunes in the background, I recognize this isn’t the same Ghana from my childhood. And rightfully so. I’ve changed so of course “she” would too.
My first few days are filled with waakye (a rice and bean dish with an array of fixing’s), kebabs, family visits, and rest. One sentiment expressed by everyone relative I encountered was, "what took you so long?"
And every time, I rushed to provide an overly simplified response to my family members' inquires. There wasn't just one reason why I had not returned to Ghana in nearly two decades. Of course things like finances and life circumstances legitimately delayed my homecoming, but there was something more insidious at play. Do you remember the bratty little girl who despised those family vacations to Ghana? She was the same little girl who learned as a first generation African in America that assimilation was necessary to avoid humiliation.
Back in second grade, my mom's signature palm nut soup prepared with dried fish followed me to school, literally. It was only after I was seated comfortably at my desk for the day that I recognized it's distinct aroma in my clothing. Unfortunately for me, my classmates had missed the cultural competency lesson on foreign cuisine that didn't yet exist. After what seemed like an eternity of insults, I managed to survive the school day but pleaded with my mom to NEVER make what I would forever call "stinky fish" again.
Sadly, it was commonplace to be ridiculed for smelling like ethnic food or other aspects of my Ghanaian culture, teased for the physical traits linked to my heritage, and even admonished by loved ones to shrink in my blackness (i.e. pinch my broad nose to narrow it or stay out of the sun to avoid getting darker).
Through these identity related childhood traumas, often doled out by people who look just like me*, I arrived at the false conclusion that being black was inherently undesirable and inferior. So why would I possibly want to go to Ghana? I didn't even want to be...me.
Side note: I think it is worth mentioning that my reaction to internalized racism manifested itself in what my detractors would call "being an Oreo;" black on the outside, white on the inside. I couldn't change my appearance, but if I could just change my behavior then maybe the world would treat me like the exception rather than the rule.
Fast forward, and I am a young professional in her early thirties walking the tightrope of being black in America. As I transitioned from childhood to adolescence and adolescence to adulthood, a number of experiences, including my progressive faith, my natural hair journey, and exposure to black twitter to name a few, moved me closer to center...closer to self.
But one area that seemed to escape my intentional, newly awakened gaze was my travels. Exploring the world was my self prescribed therapy, but I never took the time to evaluate why I selected certain vacation destinations over others. Again cost was a notable factor, but was it possible that my inner little girl still held on to the false narrative that blackness, or at least some parts of it, was inherently inferior? And maybe I wasn't the only one. Friends of all backgrounds gushed over their plans to visit Mykonos or placed Bali on their bucket list; but few mentioned dream vacations in Africa. Additionally, if someone was going to the continent, it was often linked to philanthropy or familial ties. And if social media is any indication of current trends, many of the travel accounts I followed, including the black ones, rarely featured African destinations and if they did, it was primarily from a handful of the same places ( South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Egypt).
So why did it take me 19 years to return home? As an act of survival I learned to deny my blackness and all things associated with it. Even after I grew into a more self loving and accepting version of myself, my former world view still influenced some of my decision making and I failed to prioritize visiting Ghana. It was only after I traveled to Haiti for the first time that I knew destinations throughout the diaspora deserved to move to the top of my bucket list, even if it meant traveling less frequently.
PS. Remember that little girl who once hated visiting Ghana? It took her about 20 years, but she grew up to eventually love her country and herself. Now she's committed to being the person her younger self needed by creating experiences and media that positively amplifies the African diaspora.
*In my community, growing up in the late 80s and 90s, many black people around me received the same messages from their peers and the media under a system of oppression and racism. At that time, and even today, internalize racism is our inheritance unless intentional efforts are taken to counteract it. Developing a clear sense of one’s racial identity and learning to value one’s ancestry—knowing one’s real history and drawing on the strengths of one’s culture—is a good starting point.