By Kristen Binda
I arrived in Ghana on Jan. 17, 2012. I was 20 years old, a junior at Southern Oregon University. I arrived with the experiences and knowledge of a young white girl from the Northwest, although there had also been a couple overseas travels with my parents while growing up. I had been told many times prior to my departure that I’d be the “minority” for the first time in my life. That word kept coming up, and each time I rolled my eyes a little farther. Of course I knew I was going to be the “minority,” duh; I was going to Africa.
My first day was unlike anything I could have imagined. I arrived expecting to see savannah, blue skies, huts, and lions. As the plane touched down onto the Ghanaian land that would be my home for four months, I saw red dust swallowing the sky, smoke, rickshaw houses, broken down cars, and people wandering everywhere. Buses, trotros, taxis, smoke, debris, dogs, children yelling at me, “obruni, obruni!” and men… so many men. I was in shock, mixed with a bit of fear and wonder.
My first few weeks, you could even say the first month or two, were rough in Ghana. I had a hard time with the food, as I was terrified of gaining weight on the primarily starch and oil diet. I felt much less mature and experienced than my roommates and our group of friends. I also had a hard time being separated from my boyfriend, family and friends due to the incredibly faulty technical problems that plague the country. I critiqued my surroundings, often from an outsider’s viewpoint. I couldn’t understand the men and their actions: it felt impossible to step outside my (often) western-feminist views of how things should work in the world, and instead understand why they worked the way they did in Ghana.
Part of the study abroad program I went on involved an internship with a local non-governmental organization. I came to Ghana with my schedule book, ready to save the world! Quickly I realized the internship would serve much less as an outlet for me to combat the problems plaguing the third world, but more as an opportunity for the third world to combat my arrogance, impatience and ignorance. I learned to relax, and my schedule book became obsolete. I eventually, at the time grudgingly, put it in a dresser drawer in my room along with all the other things that also become useless in the Ghanaian lifestyle.
Things started turning around for me gradually. Occasionally I would slip back into frustration, confusion, disappointment and homesickness, but what really began to change for me was the acceptance that I was there, in Ghana, and that I was going to stay there until the end, so I better start living and loving where I was. I threw out my obsession with not gaining weight. I embraced the street vendors’ fried rice and chicken, developed a love for banku with okra stew and fish meat, became a pro at picking out fish bones, ate every deep fried doughball that came my way one weekend at the beach, and generally accepted my newly acquired “fufu belly,” doing the belly walk like no other after a full plate of rice (the fufu belly was not so funny though after I got back to the U.S. and couldn’t fit into my jeans for the whole summer).
I began overlooking, and even laughing at/with the men who confessed their love and proposed to me daily, and started to flow with the gender norms and traditions of their culture rather than stand back and critique. I started to enjoy the noise, and in moments when I felt irritation creep up I tried to acknowledge how much I would eventually miss those kinds of moments. I found a juice drink that I loved, and it turned into something of a treasure hunt for this red, sometimes fizzy and gingery treat. I found talking with my roommates about my struggles helped more than trying to hide my inexperience and embarrassment about not knowing how to handle certain situations. I think about all of them so much now, and I came to realize just how much they guided me, challenged me, and helped make me a better person. Most of all I found a sort of independence within myself that I had never felt before, not even close. I loved that, and it was a part of me that only a challenge like Ghana could bring out, and a feeling that no one could take away.
Every day since I left Ghana I have been somehow reminded of it, certain colors or sounds, even the smell of smoke or car exhaust. I miss it so much sometimes. I miss the daily struggle that I felt in myself, the immense amount of growth that happened each day. Ghanaian people are the most beautiful example of that struggle, of the growth of spirit, and I miss their example. I miss the business, the noise, the emboldened children, the chatter, the women, the smiles, the difficulty, the sun, the beach, the honking, the walking, the dust, the laundry, the rain, the dancing, the music, the rasta-men, the birds, the voices, the goats, the trees, and the adventure.