Home is a people (Visiting Ghana for the first time)
I laid in bed listening to the sound of the fan whirring above me with it sinking in that the thing that I had been writing on my new year’s intentions list for the past 3 years had happened during the middle of a pandemic. I was in Ghana. My aunt had said ‘welcome home’ as she gave me the house tour. It was strange, because I had never thought of Ghana as my ‘home’.
For most of my life I had understood myself to be Jamaican. I didn’t discover the Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage of my mother’s parents until my late teenage years. Ackee and saltfish is more familiar to my tongue than Fufu and fish soup. Patois more familiar to my ear than Twi. But still, my grandfather grew up in the land. It was his home and, therefore by extension, apparently also mine. This was home.
In the morning I woke up to the sounds of chickens cooing and the sound of screaming. Turns out it was the goats. I’d never heard a goat scream before and if I can be honest I would have been happy to have never heard it. I shook the sound out of me as I got up and moved around the house that morning preparing to go to work with my aunt. The cold shower was a blessing in the heat. We ate sugar bread with tea for breakfast and as we opened the front door to leave we were met with the sounds and sights of people laughing and dancing together. Many of the faces went blank as she did the introductions. 'This is your neice/cousin/uncles brothers daughter's daughter'. They seemed disinterested, but polite, wanting to get back on with the birthday they were celebrating. They looked like they had been through this before and I wondered how many ‘family members’ they had been introduced to in this way.
The transition from stranger to family member was interesting. The first day that my aunt went to work without me I could hear the rest of the family outside talking, dancing, laughing. I stood in the hallway for about 30 minutes having a consultation with my anxiety about whether it was best to go outside or not. It was awkward right? To jump in and play family with people I had never met.
Mid-consultation I thought to myself ‘what would my best friend do?’ As the most extroverted person I know I knew he would just go outside and say hello. So that’s what I did (well, after making sure I had a purposeful question to start conversation with, like you know, ‘can you help me to connect to wifi’?).
After that I became an honorary member of the courtyard dance group. Dance soundtracks could be anything from Kidi’s ‘Enjoyment’ to Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ and the dancing could begin at any time of the day. We were in the middle of a pandemic after all, nobody was at school. It was in those outside moments that I got used to the heat on my skin and the sun on my face. I got used to the goats. I got used to meeting children’s names on the wind placed there by aunties who needed errands done. I got used to the lady that would come by to sell us clothes. I got used to the pace of life. The smells. To people passing Twi words my way, serving me jokes and stories of family members that I had never known, passing me recipes, histories of ancient fabrics and customs.
Auntie Nana was the custodian of stories and as I sat in her living room most days it was as if she had made it her personal mission to preserve whatever was left of the African in me. If I was asleep she would wake me up to watch her make jollof, or Fufu, or banku, or to taste a new drink, or to walk with her to town and I appreciated her so much for it. If I was a seed she was the gardener trying to make sure that I was buried deep enough under tradition to make sure that I would grow roots and not lose them this time.
It was difficult at first to lean into because I felt that I did not belong in the soil she was trying to cultivate. I was an obvious outsider, the western girl that was coming in to, you know. Be western. To be a spectacle, which I sometimes was, or to exploit. I wasn’t trying to be exploitive in any way but at times that’s what my presence felt like.
I didn't know if my presence seemed like it was adding anything or just taking. That feeling wasn’t helped by the auntie in the market who said ‘oh you’re from the UK? Colonialism is over now’ as if I had come there to continue its legacy. Nor was it helped by my cousins telling me my people were ‘white people’ and referencing me as ‘white girl’.
As someone who spends a lot of their time talking about issues related specifically to the African diaspora in the UK, it seems absurd for anyone to reference me as white when I go through life being very aware that I am absolutely not. It also felt absurd because we were family. We had literally sat together and learnt at which point the rivers of our bloodlines met and yet I was still ‘one of them’ instead of ‘one of us’. I didn't begrudge it, I understood it, I am closer in proximity to whiteness, but it still stung, especially as I had my head full of pan-african ideals after visiting the Kwame Nkrumah museum and seeing the pan-african discourse around the ENDSARS protests.
Within days though the relationships seemed to shift and find depth and common understanding. There was a growing understanding that our assumptions may not have been true. Disinterested looks became warm and love filled smiles. Distance was replaced by physical touch, familiarity. The day I was passing through the compound and one of the young boys who usually ignored me shouted from across the courtyard ‘auntie Mica! Good afternoon’, I knew I had made it.
I’m back home now and people keep asking me what Ghana was like and I don’t know how to describe it to them outside of these interactions, outside of the small moments.
I don’t have a bunch of tourist pictures. People kept telling me to visit different places, cape coast to see the castles where slaves were held (which was nowhere on my agenda to be honest, though I did learn that my great great grandmother was a slave which is really another blog post in itself) or the mountains.
Those are for other visits. For now I am content with memories of the people I met, the connections I made and the journey to creating them. The memory of sitting down to take out my cousin’s twists while her and the two other women in the room sang old songs. There are no words to describe how sacred and pure that moment was. Or the memory of karaoke night at the Woods bar or walking along the strip of Osu. Or the day we went to church and found out one of the members had died and after service everyone went to her house and packed into the garden to pay respects and sing into the sky and even the flies stopped buzzing long enough to rest on the washing line that cut the crowd in half to pay their respects. I experienced so much just in the day to day life of it all. While preparing green bananas and taking walks around the block I learnt what it’s like to be a young girl in Accra encountering feelings of excitement about boys for the first time while navigating responsibilities and family expectations. I learnt about how difficult it can be to pursue social justice in Africa over breakfast. Over Ludo I learnt of competitiveness. While preparing food for parties I learnt of strength and the intricate social connections that make up community life. While shopping in the markets I learnt the value of relationships and what it means to walk with purpose and cunning. People shared with me their dreams, ambitions, heartaches and desires. While watching them all I learnt so much about living a life of service and what it means to do life ‘with’ people, and what it looks like when a whole nation is your village.
And that's not to romanticise it. There were a lot of things in the day to day that were less pleasant to drink in. Like the flashlights that would be shone in our car when driving at night just to make sure nobody was being trafficked. The statue of a man that had been beaten to death just for living. Or the fact that when walking with one of the girls she told me that if I walked that way alone at night I’d get raped. The pollution. Or the evening one of my aunts told her 5-year-old son to stop crying because boys don’t cry and instead of saying they absolutely do; the weight of generational respect clamped my mouth shut in complicity to the dehumanisation of boys. On my last day I was so frustrated with everybody that I didn’t even get to process the fact I was leaving because I was too busy trying to resist the urge to fight. The nuances reminded me that there is always ugly beside the beauty. This is true of ourselves and everyone else and it is realised the most in the places that we call home.
By the time I was ready to leave Ghana did feel like home. There was something about being there that felt so comfortable. Feet slap on the ground. Touch is palm to palm. There is no in-between. There is no filter. The heat melts it all away. Where the cold forces you to hide, heat invites exposure of flesh and soul. I felt like I was allowed to be myself (well, as much of myself that could be understood in English. You never realise how much language limits expression until you need it to do more than it can). I felt accepted even when I was not entirely understood – and isn’t that what we all want? To be loved just for being?
While I was in the airport waiting for my flight back I thought about all the different ideas that people have about Africa within the diaspora. Africa as the motherland, some people envision it as a black utopia, our true home to which we need to return. But what this trip reminded me of is that home is not a place but a people with open hearts and open arms. I know from reading Mama Maya Angelou's 'All Gods children need travelling shoes' that not everybody gets to experience that on their 'year of return'. I am grateful that I did.