The sun was close to setting when we entered Nigerian airspace over Kano, desert city of the north. The window seat passengers suddenly cheered and gestured at the landscape below. The plane tilted sideways, and those of us stuck in the wide middle section had a glimpse: tan, sandy landscape. Broccoli trees scattered evenly. I thought of hair-tight coils of hair on black scalp. A shiver went through me.
I was perhaps the first in my line to visit Africa since the first ancestors reached the U.S. And now I was reuniting them with the land of their birth.
My throat constricted. The impassioned faces of my black classmates sitting nearby told me that the African landscape was affecting them similarly. I wanted to cry along with some of them, but not in that sea of white people. Blond-haired, blue-eyed white people, most of whom had gotten on the plane at Amsterdam. I could already sense their eyes probing my face. I didn't want their pity or misunderstanding, so I just smiled. Smiled till my cheeks hurt.
As the plane continued to our final destination, Accra, Ghana's capital, I was chanting to myself, I have no expectations. Or rather, lying to myself. Upon exiting the plane, my khakis and T-shirt stuck to me in the hot, moist air, and minor fears crept into my consciousness. I'd chosen to spend a semester in Ghana, three whole months! Could I even make it through a week in that humidity? Why was there a smell of something burning in the air? And what the hell was that big thing that fluttered by my face on the short hike from the plane to the airport?
"You're going to Ghana and you're afraid of bugs?" my friends from tropical climates had teased when I announced my plans to study in West Africa. They couldn't resist traumatizing me with tales of nightly visits by cockroaches to your bed. Giant, flying cockroaches that try to crawl into your mouth while you sleep.
But how could I focus on bugs when I thought I was about to meet tradition? The country of my birth had bombarded me with negative images of Africa, so anything African must be good. All African traditions must be good. Right? Naturally, I wanted to be the eager apprentice-observing, taking notes, copying, modifying, adapting, adopting.
Something should have hit me when my program advised the female students to wear long skirts the whole time in Ghana. I never wore skirts back home. I'd grumbled through trips to several department stores trying to hunt one down, finally settling on some of my mother's calf-length, flower-print rayon skirts. Something should have hit me too upon learning about the possibility of dying from a mosquito bite, getting diarrhea for days after drinking the water, and considering precautions like using mosquito spray daily, sleeping under a bug net, and brushing my teeth with bottled water.
Something should have hit me. But not then. I was too excited about the idea of being in the muthaland. Too much in awe of my surroundings. There I was, experiencing summertime in February, having just arrived from the nipping cold of a New Jersey winter. There I was, surrounded by lush tropical scenery: palm trees, flamboyant trees, mango and papaya trees, endless beaches, stretches of green plateaus and hills.
On top of it, I knew Ghana. Nearly everything I encountered was giving me vivid flashbacks to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, where I'd spent two weeks the previous summer. While getting a taste of Caribbean life there, I didn't realize how close to Africa I was. Shared taxis squeezed three in the back and sometimes two in the front passenger seat. Minivans with a driver and helper crammed in even more. Glass soda bottles you couldn't walk off with. Malta and Milo. Open trench-like roadside gutters instead of sewers. Billboard ads for Omo soap, used to hand-wash laundry. University campuses with their long main roads. Tourist attractions that charged more for foreigners than for citizens. Middle-class, suburban communities of newly constructed cinderblock homes, surrounded by concrete walls topped with broken bottle glass or barbed wire. Families having house-help from the countryside or village. Women with permed hair.
But those three months in 1999, there was just so much to soak up. Too much to deeply analyze.
Day 4. I awake with a tender scalp, evidence of my first rite of passage into African womanhood. The night before, a few of my African-American classmates and I paid some Ghanaian women to braid synthetic-hair into our own. I was delighted to share the experience with my sistahs, because it was my first opportunity to connect with them. Two large groups of the African American students knew each other prior to our trip, and during our first few days in Ghana, they didn't seem interested in broadening their circles. I dreaded becoming ostracized like one of my white classmates, who few of my classmates associated with, even though she seemed nice enough.
I've known the pain of that rejection. You're the one chosen last for gym teams. The one others snicker at when you pass by. They whisper about the funny way you walk, the inexpensive clothes your parents have struggled to provide, the way you talk. You're the one that bullies itch to jump after school-just because. You aren't liked-just because. I feel bad for my classmate, but for once, I'm glad it's not me.
Before my first three years in college, I had no black friends for seven years. There were a handful of black students at my high school, but race was our only commonality. It wasn't enough for the black students to want to befriend me. Like many of my peers there-white, Latino, Asian, or otherwise-my passion for learning was a turnoff.
Most of my high school companions were born outside the U.S., mainly Asia. Their friendship broadened my worldview, but something always felt missing. My foreign friends didn't understand my annoyance when teachers kept mistaking me for another student who looked nothing like me, except that she was black and wore glasses. They didn't understand my sensitivity when whites mentioned black people and fried chicken or watermelon in the same sentence, or when a white teacher suggested that I sing and dance in the school talent show because "your people are good at that." I didn't feel comfortable breaking into Ebonics with them, as I could at home.
Last night, over giggles, shared strands of synthetic hair, and bowls of steaming water for setting the braids, I tasted what's been denied: the in-crowd. Many of the African Americans in my semester abroad program are around my age and will soon finish college as well. Several of us have seen Sankɔfa, the powerful film that sparked a yearning to visit Ghana's slave castles. We're excited about being in the homeland of our ancestors and are eager to learn about a history and culture that has been hidden from us.
On this morning after the hair braiding, I lay in bed not wanting to get up, not wanting to move my head so my scalp won't ache more. Through the fingers of the squat palm tree outside my window, the sky over Cape Coast is overcast. Roosters begin to crow. At the lot next to the hostel, where a building is going up, hammers strike metal. The construction workers sing in Fante, making the hammering their drumbeats.
My stomach gurgles. I haven't adjusted well to the food, and I'm not looking forward to our hostel's daily omelets-what about my cholesterol! Everything else is either swimming in red palm oil, or is starchy and heavy. We've eaten with forks and knives so far but have been told that Ghanaians traditionally eat with the right hand. And not with a piece of bread like in some parts of India or Ethiopia, to protect your fingers from food. I cringe with thoughts of lolling my hand through soup and getting food stuck under my nails. During my time in Ghana, I'm eager to reconnect with my ancestral roots by learning the traditions, but maybe I'd have to forgo copying that one!
After showering and brushing my teeth with bottled water, I drag myself into the breakfast room, where Ghana's former British colonial invasion is apparent. Along with the omelets, we have bread-and-jam and Lipton tea-tea in 85-degree weather!
I find my classmates chattering about the mysterious "urban drop-off" activity scheduled for that morning. Someone's heard that our program supervisors will leave us by ourselves in different sections of Cape Coast.
My stomach groans, even though it's getting full from the eggs and bread. We regard each other with nervous smiles. This is a joke, right? We've gone nearly everywhere together for the past three days of our orientation. We haven't had to think about where our next meal is coming from, where we'll go to sleep, how we'll get around.
Our nervous smiles change to wide-open mouths when our program supervisors announce that yes, indeed, we'll explore Cape Coast that morning without them. We're relieved to discover we'll go in pairs, but still! Not only would we have to find our way to the town hall at a designated time, but we'd have to buy something-or rather, some thing. We're given the object's name in Fante, meaning we'll have to first get someone to translate it, then figure out where to buy it. Since we've already learned that market prices in Ghana aren't strictly standardized, we know we'll have to bargain for it.
I go into American mode: panic! Ghana is supposed to contain some of the friendliest people in the world, everyone tells me, but the bustling, narrow, winding streets of Cape Coast are always full of people and back-to-back honking cars. Are Ghanaians so friendly that they'd just strike up conversations with us, making this assignment super-easy? Somehow, I don't think so.
Not long after breakfast, a white classmate and I find ourselves on a random street in humid Cape Coast, watching our program's minibus chug off with the rest of our waving classmates in it. We set off, trying to appear calm as Ghanaians march past, frowning at us.
I wipe my sweaty face with the washcloth we were advised to bring along. In the meantime, sweat runs down my legs, beneath the long skirt. I saunter on, lugging my clunky book bag and the floppy straw hat that seemed so appropriate in the Bahamas. I try to imagine that I'm Ginger shipwrecked in Gilligan's paradise.
I'm feeling more like the character from I'm Gonna Get You Sucka who gets released from jail. The dude with the goldfish in his heels.
We stop to snap pictures of the two-story cinderblock homes lining the sloping street and the cars and two-toned taxis that whiz by. The Ghanaian men who sit face-to-face, slamming checkers onto a wide board on their knees, like Alabama men in a Chester Higgins, Jr., photograph.
I take furtive glances at the unsmiling Ghanaians around us. Are their seemingly angry expressions due to the harsh noonday sun, beaming into all of our faces? Or is it the sudden appearance of two foreign young ladies, one black and one white, snapping pictures and dressed strangely?
My armor doesn't let me take time to analyze the situation. I already feel the invisible steel surrounding me, like in high school, when my peers teased me for being different, when I quickly learned that expressing my hurt only warranted more ridicule. My jaw sets into its familiar stiffness. I can feel my pupils dilating. Ready for fight or flight.
The armor is probably making me look as unapproachable as these Ghanaians, but how can I easily discard it? It's taken years for it to develop, to protect me from hostile stares and laughter. It's my defense mechanism, gained from years of being misjudged as a snob by my white peers and as a nerdy "Oreo" by the blacks. Years of having others try to make me ashamed of who I was: smart and imaginative and soft-spoken.
But never shy.
We've been walking for about ten minutes and still don't know what the hell it is we're supposed to buy. Abe, reads the word with the funny "E" on the paper I chose from a calabash that morning. I've gotten sick of my classmate and me feeling passive, so I detour to a roadside stand where a man sells canned foods.
"Hello, sir. Good morning. How are you?" I enunciate, hoping I haven't missed any words. We've learned that extended greetings are a cultural norm in Ghana. "Can you please tell us where we can find some abe?"
He points in the direction we're walking. "You will find some at the Kɔtɔkuraba market," he tells us in the staccato English accent that's becoming more familiar.
"Medaase," my classmate and I say. Thank you!
We leave the stand, trying to conceal our giggles. Koko-what? Kokobaba? We approach a random Ghanaian to ask for the correct pronunciation. The unfamiliar sounds of Fante roll on our tongues, sounding comical no matter what we come up with. People smile at our attempts. We get bolder throw more questions at them: are we headed in the right direction? Is the market far away?
As we continue down the street, I realize my breathing has returned to normal. This is Cape Coast, not New York City. Complete strangers do have time to talk to each other. No one's hissing at us to "go back to our country" because we're having difficulty with the language. I've also noticed that people are staring less since we stopped taking pictures. I grin and feel myself walking with a swagger.
More shops and stands appear at the roadsides. Is this it, we wonder? Vendors keep pointing us up the road at our mention of the market. Finally, we see a large cluster of stands at the center of the street, radiating out in a "V." Above them is a large sign that makes my classmate and me squeal and give each other high-fives: KƆTƆKURABA. But with all these stands, where will we find abe, whatever it is?
I approach a woman selling tomatoes at a roadside stand. "Excuse me, miss. Good morning. Where can we buy some abe?"
She points at the market. As I squint at the patchwork quilt of stands, the woman comes from behind her stand, saying, "Bra," the Fante/Twi word for "come." She grabs my hand, and my classmate and I look at each other in wonder. A stranger hasn't held my hand since I was a kid! The woman guides me between the honking cars and yellow-and-black taxis on the street. I scurry behind her, trying to avoid getting brushed by car bumpers and side-view mirrors.
The tomato woman leads us along the outer part of the market. We stop in front of a counter heaped with shiny, orange-red, nut-like things.
"How much do you want?" the tomato woman asks me. She still hasn't let go of my hand.
We've each been given Ghanaian currency-5,000 cedis, the equivalent of about $2. "Er...a thousand?"
The tomato woman's eyes widen. She speaks in Fante to the abe vendor, who looks shocked too. When I see her measuring the abe into a large, old coffee can, I realize why the tomato woman thought my request strange. Perhaps a hundred or so of the abe fit into one can! I quickly inform her that I mean a thousand cedis' worth. She laughs and gives instructions to the abe vendor, who looks relieved and dumps the nuts into a plastic bag.
The tomato woman beckons for my money. My classmate and I watch, fascinated, as the two women bargain the price of the abe in Fante. The tomato woman collects our change and hands it to me. My classmate and I gawk at each other, still trying to digest what's just happened. The tomato woman has left her stand-probably her livelihood-to help strangers purchase something. Now if that isn't friendly!
The tomato woman faces us. "Okay, bye!"
"Wait!" I say. We still don't know what this abe is!
"It is palm nut," she explains. "We pound it and collect the oil. You can also use some on your body." She demonstrates by grabbing my wrist and rubbing my arm.
We thank her profusely before she and jogs back to her stand across the street.
Feeling high with courage, I decide to get some more details about this abe. I spot the perfect candidate. She's the meanest-looking person around. She's sitting on a wooden crate outside the market, face scrunched, arms folded across her chest. Swinging my weighty plastic bag full of palm nuts, I approach her.
"Excuse me, miss."
She shields her eyes from the sun and looks up at me, losing some of her frown. "Yes?"
"We just bought some abe. Can you tell us what it's used for?"
"Oh, abe!" She's smiling now. "We use it to make a stew. Have you tasted some?"
My classmate and I shake our heads. The woman throws back her head and claps. "But you must taste it-o! It is my favorite. And have you seen how these boys go to get it-ah? You know the tall trees there, by the beach? They climb to the top and pick them." She closes her eyes and reminisces about the succulent taste of abe nkwan, or palm nut stew, admitting that we've made her want some.
I'm quickly discovering that the harsh Ghanaian expressions I've seen all morning are different from those I encountered in high school. They aren't all malicious. As long as I give friendliness, someone will return it.
All of my classmates arrive at Cape Coast's town hall on time. Accompanying us are a group of children who've attached themselves along the way, willing to be our informal guides. My classmates and I exchange stories of our adventures that morning and play show-and-tell with the objects we've proudly purchased.
One of my black classmate's stories sticks with me the most. When she was making her purchase, she explained to the vendor how her ancestors were stolen from Africa ages ago and enslaved in America. The vendor said, "Well, sister, welcome home, then!"
My eyes start tearing, along with those of the other African American students present. For us, "home" is serious business. Before deciding to come to Ghana, I saw a documentary that made me realize just how much.
The film showed how a group of African Americans discovered their roots in Africa. Their enslaved descendants, known as the Gullahs, farmed rice in the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands. Anthropologists traced their ancestry to modern-day Mendeland, Sierra Leone by using a song that had survived amongst the Gullahs for generations. When the group of African Americans arrived in Sierra Leone and met the President, he cried upon hearing them speak a Pidgin English similar to his. The returnees embraced each other and nearby Mende people. Some of them danced and fell to their knees. Others shouted, "We've come back home!"
I was jealous. During my lifetime, "home" had come to mean East Orange, the predominantly black New Jersey town where I spent my childhood and felt nurtured. But it also meant Belleville, the predominantly white town where I couldn't make black friends, where my studious ways made many of my peers shun me, and where I had few happy memories. Recently, "home" was my college dorm room, which changed annually. I threw the word around, but I wanted it to mean so much more. I yearned for a place where I could truly feel comfortable and accepted.
With that Ghanaian woman's simple words, "Sister, welcome home," she's given me the freedom to plant my roots. I feel a layer of that armor slipping off and falling into the gutters of Cape Coast.
Week 2. I spot one of my black classmates, Maria, outside our hostel one evening, arguing with a Ghanaian man. They stand near women selling snacks by the light of oilcan-candle flames. As I approach, one of the women smiles at me and tells me that my nose looks like the man's.
It doesn't. I've been searching many Ghanaians' faces for a bit of me, because I feel I can somehow validate my African ancestry through a physical connection. I haven't had much success. I've seen no pug nose on a heart-shaped face. Perhaps if my cheeks were rounder, I'd look more Ghanaian. Perhaps if I had a gap between my front teeth like my brother, who despises this feature, which is a mark of beauty in Ghana.
The man admires my clothing, telling me that I look "nice and simple." I'm suddenly grateful for the matronly long skirt and schoolmarm blouse. If I were wearing a tank top, shorts, or jeans, the man tells me, I might be mistaken for a prostitute. Most of the Ghanaian women I've seen wear skirts that come to at least knee-length. Pants were mainly by college students, more so in the capital than at the university in Cape Coast.
One of the candy-selling women grabs my wrist and points at the man. "He is my brother. Please, madame, I want you to take him as your husband."
The man smiles and hides his left hand when he notices that I've spotted his wedding ring. Maria rolls her eyes and huffs.
I soon realize it's more than just the man's flirting that's irritated Maria. At some point in talking to us, he calls her oburonyi, and she frowns at him. Oburonyi used to be the local term for "white person" but now describes a foreigner or stranger. Some of my black classmates have taken offense when Ghanaians call them that: how dare Ghanaians consider us foreigners or strangers, when our ancestors came from Africa? My mind logically tells me that we shouldn't let it bother us much, because technically, we are strangers. We've grown up far removed from not only the homeland but also the culture of our African ancestors. We don't speak the local languages, don't know the social rules and customs.
Maria narrows her eyes at the man. "Yes, I know I'm oburonyi."
"And me too," I say.
"No," he tells me. "You are not oburonyi. You are black, like us."
He's given me a ticket into yet another in-crowd. I feel like cheesing, but I can't. Not when Maria's standing right next to me, eyes watering. As she hurries away, the man guffaws.
I feel awful for Maria, but what can I do-me, who's made his cut? What words of comfort can I offer her, whose blackness would never be doubted at home, even though her mother is white, and even though she has silky, shoulder-length hair and skin about three shades lighter than mine is. Maria, who may have come to Ghana to reconnect with her black father's ancestry, only to be dismissed because she's too light. Too light for black Africa, too dark for white America.
I, on the other hand, am cinnamon-colored and getting darker each day under the sun. Beyond my skin color, I've manipulated my physical appearance to help myself blend in. My thick, one-inch afro is braided into extensions, the hairstyle of choice for Ghanaian women, when they aren't showing off their wet-set perms, that is. I've gotten some African wax-print cotton outfits made. I've seen very few Ghanaians wearing glasses, but I don't have to worry about drawing attention to myself since I wear contact lenses.
The only people who seem stumped by my skin color are my Cape Coast host family, whose house I move into at the end of the week. My eleven-year-old surrogate sister reminds me of myself at that age. She enjoys reading and has pretty eyes behind lavender-tinted glasses that are too large for her face. When she meets me, she rubs her eyes, saying, "You look funny behind my glasses. You look too bright-o!"
My surrogate mother tells her it's a mean thing to say. But what she herself says about my appearance horrifies me more than her daughter's innocent observation. "My last student from America, her people could have been Hausas, because she was very tall and very dark. You-I will have to think on it."
I'm thinking that her judgment might be the closest thing to the new DNA test that can trace one's ancestry to Africa. Since the tests cost far beyond my student budget, I anxiously await her response.
She circles me and peers into my face, as though inspecting me for a malady, then claps and smiles. "Actually, where I come from up north, there is a chief who has married a white woman. You can tell people that you are their daughter!"
As I'm struggling to regurgitate my tongue, she asks me, "So, one of your parents is a white-ah?"
She frowns. "But one of your grandparents...?"
"They're all black. And so are my great-grands, as far as I know."
She's looking at me as though I just came from a psych ward, but she offers a quick smile. "I see."
I excuse myself and escape to the privacy of my quarters in the house's spacious guest wing, wondering how the flirtatious Ghanaian man who offended Maria saw something completely different in me. Did the dim oilcan flame make my skin appear dark?
I stare at myself in my long bureau mirror. Reflected back is the squared nose that's half my mother's and half my father's. The high cheekbones everyone in the States identifies as Native American. There are my flat nails, characteristic of Asians. There are the hips that refused to bulge at adolescence, along with the derriere that's never quite filled the back of my jeans. There are my not-so-full bottom lip, and the upper one that nearly disappears when I smile.
My crinkly hair and skin color are undoubtedly of African origin. But now that my complexion has been called into question, I realize I haven't seen a wide range in skin colors in Ghana, as is common in the States. So far, I've seen only a pocketful of Ghanaians who have my color, and they've tended to have a white parent.
It's no wonder, then, that my host mother was puzzled to discover I have no immediate white ancestry. To explain to her the reason for my complexion would probably confuse her more. I'd have to make her understand the convoluted, false science of "race": where I come from, a drop of African blood means you're labeled "black," no matter how light your skin or straight your hair.
In one of my college classes, I read a book by a Ghanaian of African and British parentage and remember becoming irate when he suggested that in Africa, African Americans aren't black. I thought he was trying to create tension between Africans and African Americans. Now, in light of my host mother's assumption and the Ghanaian man's comment to Maria, it makes more sense: "black" means something totally different on opposite sides of the Atlantic. For Ghanaians, it's physical-the color of one's skin.
No matter how much I remain in the sun, Ghanaians keep describing my skin as "red." Not surprising for someone of African, Native American, and European ancestry. If there's one thing I could change about myself, though, I'd do a reverse Michael Jackson: I'd make myself darker, if it would make Ghanaians accept me more. Ironically, before learning to appreciate my African ancestry, I wanted to be even lighter.
Ghana is heaven for my dark-skinned brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora who walk in shame for believing that malicious rhyme, if you're white you're alright, if you're brown stick around, if you're black get back. For me, there seems to be no oasis, because my skin has reached maximum darkness. It's even begun to get sunburned and peel.
I stand under sun
wanting to be black
only to become kɔkɔɔ
You bleach, voluntary vitiligo
wanting to be white
only to look mixed like me
 Fante/Twi for "red."
© 2007 Kim Foote