Growing up in a small suburban town, I was surrounded by patriotic Americans, who embodied the essence of American values and adhered to the traditional customs and cultures of the mid west. My peers were mostly white, and religiously conscious. As a first generation Ghanaian woman, it did not take much time or effort to understand that I was different than many of the people around me. Despite my ethnic difference, I found it easy to get along with most of my classmates, as they displayed little to no hostility towards me or my family. However, every so often, I would find myself in a conversation in which I was force to defend and validate Ghana and the Ghanaian people.
I remembered when my first grade classmates learned that I was from Ghana. My teacher, Ms. Devon, had met with my parents during a parent-teacher conference, and it was revealed to her that my parents were born and raised in West Africa. Ms. Devon, in all her sincere delight, thought it would be interesting for me to share this with my friends. Immediately, I was bombarded with questions. Fundamentally they wanted to know, if I a)lived in a hut when I visited Ghana; b) played with wildlife, including but not limited to lions, giraffes, and elephants and c) what I ate when I went there.
The questions took me aback, as I did not realize that my peers saw Africa to be such a primitive place. By age seven I had to been to Ghana two times, and each trip proved to be more luxurious than the one prior. Both of my grandfathers lived in multiple compound houses. Houses big enough to fit my American home in at least four times. I swam all day and had at least two domestic workers attending to my every need. No, we did not always have running water or electricity, but that was not an issue. I never had to fetch my own water, and if the lights went out, the backup generator picked up the slack. I ate well, slept well, and enjoyed the company of my extended family. Therefore, as I stood in front of my classmates and they asked me such questions, I began to resent them and their seemingly unfounded questions. Did they not know how wonderful Ghana was? Did they not know how wonderful life was when you were there?
Of course, the answer was no. Through no fault of their own, they had developed an image of Ghana, a place in Africa, which had nothing to offer but vast patches of red clay, National Geograpic-esque animal life images, and poor people, habituating in unbearable conditions. Unfortunately, this mentality was not exclusive to my first grade peers. Then and now, people see nothing promising coming from Ghana. With the AIDS epidemic casting its dark shadow down on the continent and civil war seeming to never cease, it is impossible to convince anyone that Ghana, or Africa, has anything to offer besides disease and darkness.
As I grew older, and continued to visit Ghana, I began to see what so many people in the west saw when engaged in news documentaries or philanthropic commentaries. What I witnessed was the stark dichotomy of the third world economy that wedged a great gap between the rich and the poor. This was the contrast that placed Africa in the predicament that it has been in. The very rich do well in Ghana, for the most part. They have access to adequate health care. They can afford to eat balanced and nutritious diets. In addition, they live in conditions that decrease their chances of malaria, cholera, and other common diseases that often wipe out many villages. For the poor, their reality is just the opposite. The small economy does not lend favor to social welfare programs so desperately needed by those in need. Instead, many poor people are forced into unfavorable working conditions and live hand to hand with no steady income.
However, for many Ghanaians their fate is not determined by economic status alone. Instead, the strong cultural and familial customs of Ghana and other African countries provides people with the opportunity to seek help through friends and family members. For example, if one cannot find a home, it is customary to contact extended relatives and ask for a room or bed. In addition, the concept of nursing homes or hospice is foreign to many Ghanaians. Instead, it is customary for elderly adults to be cared for by their children during their final years on earth. This sense of community and responsibility makes many Ghanaians proud of their cultural wealth despite their economic lacking.
I understand that my vision of Africa is limited to that of Ghana, and some of its neighboring countries, however, I do believe that my sentiment is shared by many people in African and those part of the African Diaspora. Often times, we allow our thoughts and ideas to be created by brief clips and sound bites that we see on the television screen or hear on the radio. Although I do not deny the sincerity of these messages, I would like to urge people to examine Africa through a lens that lends to a greater scope than the one we are often presented with. Ghana, Africa, and many other developing third world countries, are not always asking for a hand out, but instead recognition of the vast resources and commodities that they have to offer. Viewing these countries as possible contributors could create a greater sense of pride for the people of Africa and those belonging to the global community. The culture and customs alone are invaluable, and many people understand that through these principles alone, generations of African have been able to overcome AIDS, poverty, and environmental conditions with tenacity and courage.
50 Shades of Black is proud to partner with Tamaji Magazine. ”50 Shades of Black | Africa” is a weekly column curated by Tamaji’s founder Aminata Diop. The column features personal interviews with African-born men and women living throughout the Diaspora whose voices reflect a unique African perspective. Be sure to tune in next week!