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Life Lessons in Ghana

The Lasting Impact of Cross-Cultural Encounters

Soccer Victory Parade in Ghana
After Ghana’s victory over the United States during the World Cup, an impromptu parade arose and lasted for hours, despite the rain.

During the summer I had the privilege to travel abroad for the first time, an opportunity rare for someone in my family. With three other siblings, all of whom are already in school or planning on it within the next few years, I knew that the funds to send any of us outside of the country would be low. I was itching to get a new experience though. I had lived in the same house for my entire life. I went to school in Ohio, my home state, to save money for the family. I had had the same friends, same neighbors, and altogether the same experiences for 20 years. As a hard-working student with a solid GPA I knew that my only opportunity for travel would be through grants and scholarships put toward a study abroad program. This seemed like my one shot at complete multiculturalism so I wanted to go where no one I knew had been before. I wanted an experience that I would have never dreamed of doing, something completely outside of my comfort-zone. So, in my sophomore year at Ohio University studying psychology I decided to go abroad and to do it big—I chose the African Culture through the Arts Program in Ghana, Africa.

Why Africa? Well, I had spent my life in white suburbia. I think there were four students of color at my high school of about 450 students. In history classes we learned all about Europe, Asia, South America, and of course the U.S. No one ever spoke of Africa, though. If they did, they referred to it simply as Africa, as if it were just one country, not a continent. Americans tend not to recognize that there are in fact over 50 countries in Africa, each with its own amazingly beautiful and rich culture. In Ghana alone, over 30 different languages are spoken. All I had learned of Africa was about AIDS or poverty or starvation. I simply refused to believe that a few thousand miles across the great Atlantic there was an entire continent built entirely upon squalor. So, I decided to go over and see for myself. What I found after my 3-week venture is that the American portrayal of this beautiful land couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a psychology major bound for graduate school it was hard to imagine that my Ghanaian experience would have a real impact on my career. To be honest though, I needed to find myself and feel grounded in order to set forth on my quest for a graduate degree. I learned more about myself in that short time period abroad than I did in my whole two decades of soul-searching. Ghanaians love Americans. They’re not wild about our government, but they realize that as an individual American, I am not necessarily a representative of the leadership of the U.S.

It was when I realized that the Ghanaian people accepted me, a complete and total stranger, that I learned that I needed to open up and do the same. The first few times that I was asked where I was from it felt strange to say “America” or “the United States.” This was the first time I had really thought about my nationality. When I said it, they would grin and say “America! What a beautiful nation!” and proceed to excitedly ask me many questions about it. When I saw their excitement, an American pride that I had never felt before welled up inside me. It echoed in my head often—I am an American.

I had the most amazing host family. I could talk about a lot of things with my host mom, Dziefa. We discussed men, fashion, music—things that would typically be associated with female culture. I had a harder time coming up with conversation topics to discuss with Paul, my host dad. This is when my “a-ha!” moment came. Dziefa had prepared a delicious meal for us, even going out of her way to adhere to my vegetarian diet (which is unheard of in Ghana—they didn’t quite understand it). She, Paul, and I were sitting around the small family table, eating with our hands as is the custom, and I was feeling a little nervous because it had grown silent. All I could think of was “I’m 6,000 miles away from home and everything is so different.” Dziefa then asked me what I like to do at school, and when I explained my interest in politics Paul jerked his head up—“Politics?” he asked excitedly. I began to explain our system in the U.S., but he already knew all about it. In fact, he knew more about American politics than I did! He explained that politics are quite the same in Ghana, and he was even running for the representative for his region. He asked me which party I was affiliated with and when I told him the Democratic Party, he jumped up and smiled and said, “My beautiful daughter!”

Now, I tend to like people of both parties and try not to judge, but I was elated. The College Dems in Ohio are like my family and I missed them terribly. When I was able to talk with my host dad about something that I hold so near and dear to my heart, Ghana really started to feel like home. I realized that no matter how far you travel, or who you are with, there will always be something to connect you with other people. For me it was politics, and it seemed like the world got a whole lot cozier. I tell everyone in College Dems this story so that they know there are people all over the world who share our beliefs and values, and it always makes them smile.

I learned countless valuable life lessons on my trip and I feel fortunate that I had this opportunity. First of all, it reminded me that family is first. My host parents shared a one-room hut with their young daughter. They had no luxuries by U.S. standards, very little furniture, and few belongings. They said they didn’t need or even want those things, though. They asked me, “Why would you need that when you have family?” In fact, the intense love they had for one another made me miss my family like I never had before. My family isn’t very affectionate, but it made me want us to be. When I arrived back home at the airport, my dad picked me up. When I saw him from across the terminal I threw down my luggage and ran to give him the first hug I had given him in years. Ever since, we’ve been very close and talk to each other almost every day when I am at school. Secondly, I learned that it is my duty to share everything that I have. There is no point in hoarding anything, whether it be money, food, clothes, or friends. My Ghanaian friends did not have much, but what they did have, they showered us with. I want to do the same.

It was incredible that I was fortunate enough to go on this trip. I have my scholarship donors and parents to thank for this and cannot show my gratitude enough. I spent my life savings to go to Ghana this summer, but truth be told, I would do it all over again.

Editor's Note: The African Culture through the Arts Program in Ghana, Africa is no longer running, but similar programs exist throughout Africa.

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