I have wanted to travel to West Africa for as long as I can remember. The early seeds were planted when my grandmother, aunt, and uncle spent time in Ghana. I must have been around eight then, and I remember their stories of eating delicious pineapples by the side of the road, of falling in love, of bliss. They brought back beautiful trinkets and a carefully crafted Mancala game. I knew one day I would have to see the place for myself, and have my own first impression of Accra.
In my senior year of college, I went so far as to consider spending a semester at the University of Ghana. Throughout my years at UCLA, I had been part of the Afrikan Student Union. We spelled Afrika with a “k” because, at least according to the group’s lore, African languages did not have a “c”; it was a sound brought by the Europeans along with guns, colonialism, and chattel slavery. We spent hours speaking of the continent as our ancestral homeland, one which held the secrets of a forgotten past–of which we had been robbed when our forefathers were forced onto slave ships.
Fast forward four years, and I had the opportunity to accompany my Ghanaian husband on a trip home to visit his family (I promise, the Ghanaian husband is nothing but a happy coincidence). As our plane neared Kotoka International Airport in Accra on a June evening, I gazed out the window. My eyes were brimming with tears. It was an unconscious response, originating from somewhere deep within me. I was crying in recognition of the pain that my ancestors had endured, the dehumanization, the alienation, the rape. And it hurt like hell. I thought about how they had been brought to the United States unwillingly, chained like savages to slave ships, thrown into the Atlantic as shark bait when their bodies–and spirits–could handle no more.
Returning to the continent in the comfort of too close together seats on British Airways was an act of rebellion. It demonstrated that I had not been broken by the brutality and greed of European traders and African leaders. Instead, I was coming back stronger than ever, armed with the ancient blood of Africa and the rich, vibrant history of Black America. It was with this in mind that I descended from the aircraft.
My first steps on African soil were into a queue for COVID-19 testing. $150 a pop, complete with suited medical practitioners and long lines. After being hustled for cash by airport workers looking for some “God bless America money” (their words not mine, you gotta give it to them for creativity), we finally made it into the balmy night. As soon as the airport doors opened, I knew I was in Africa. It was my first impression of Accra, and the energy was captivating. There were so many people, so many Black people. Standing, laughing, shouting. I had never felt or seen anything like it. As a taxi driver shoved us and six suitcases into a tiny car, I knew that I was in for the adventure of a lifetime.
As we sped down the highway, I looked out the window, mesmerized. When we turned down a side street toward my in-law’s house, I was shocked. The street was completely unpaved. The taxi driver revved the gas and fought his way up the path through sticks and large stones. Finally, we stopped outside the heavy gates. My in-laws came to greet us, showing us their beautiful home.
After a trek to John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, a layover in London and a flight to Accra, I wanted nothing more than a hot shower. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. My mother-in-law began boiling a huge pot of water, which was then transferred to a bucket so that I could enjoy a warm shower. I told myself that from then on I would brave the cold water, because who has time to boil water every day? A little cold never killed nobody.
The next day, I awoke to a breakfast of tea, soft white Ghanaian bread, and omelet. Because there was no can opener, I watched my husband deftly open a can of evaporated milk with a sharp knife. Tea with brown sugar and evaporated milk? Pure bliss.
We then set out in a taxi for West Hills Mall, which is a large shopping center. We needed a broadband stick for Internet as well as some essentials from the grocery store. Funnily enough, the grocery store was Shoprite, just like the chain we have in New Jersey. Who would’ve thought? One thing I will say about my first impression of Accra–traffic is WILD! Like New York City has nothing on this city! My goodness.
On top of that, taxi drivers are reluctant to turn on air conditioning due to the high cost of fuel here. However, the drive was interesting, as there were people running alongside the cars to sell their wares. They sell everything from peanuts to car floor mats and paintings. What I found most impressive were the women carrying huge amounts of merchandise atop their heads. I even saw one woman balancing her wares on her head while walking and scrolling her phone. Talk about taking multitasking to the next level!
After a few hours of errands and relaxing on the front porch–it’s actually cooler outside than inside most times, as there is a refreshing breeze that helps make the heat somewhat bearable–it was lunch time. My mother-in-law served up one of my favorite Ghanaian meals: fermented corn dough (Kenkey) with deep fried tilapia, scotch bonnet pepper salsa, and shito, a black pepper sauce.
The next day, we went to Nima. Nima is a neighborhood best known for two things: being home to 1) the current president Nana Akufo-Addo (who I met when he came to speak at Rutgers University) and 2) a bustling market. We went to pick up some fabric, as my mother-in-law wanted to have a dress tailored for me. It was nice, visiting the various stalls and seeing all of the activity going on in such a big place. It was a lot different than going to Walmart or Target, that’s for sure. The goats and chickens roaming around made sure to remind me of that.
Because we were flying to Cote d’Ivoire the next day for a week-long visit, further exploration of the city was to be postponed until our return. However, I definitely soaked up a lot those first few days, enough to have a well-informed first impression of Accra. Even now, I am still getting to know Ghana. Seeing it as a living, breathing place, with living, breathing people, has made it bigger than the mystical version I had in college.
The warmth of the people, their hustle and joy in the face of struggling for survival is palpable. I don’t mean this as some infantilizing takeaway. Those first few days in Accra really showed me just how many American conveniences I take for granted: hot water, consistent electricity (here it shut it off randomly, just when I was doing my makeup), working traffic lights and paved streets, sidewalks and crosswalks, widespread air conditioning.
I am still adjusting, and I don’t know if I will ever fully adjust. But I am trying, and I am so grateful for the welcome I have received. This is not my home, but I see pieces of home here. In the stance of the women and sashay of their hips. In the boisterous laughter and shouts of people having a good time. In the locs, braids, fades, and perms that I see the people sporting. No matter where we are, there is a certain style, vibe, je nais se quois that Black people have. That is what I am holding on to.
Next Stop: Abidjan, Cote d’ Ivoire