In Ghana it is said, "Africa will either hug you up real nice, or chew you up and spit you out, but it will always mold you with her power." This is particularly true, for those Africans (from the diaspora) who return home with layers of romanticism about living in Africa. Of my eight visits to Africa, most have been on the West Coast, and in Ghana in particular. In fact, Ghana is the place I am currently building my dream house. Fulfilling this dream has meant continuing a process of peeling off layers of romanticism, as well as deconstructing my own westernized attitudes and behaviors. Africans from throughout the diaspora, and even on the continent itself, held myths about each other, built on centuries of separation and the distorted images we have been fed.
Class issues is one factors that contributes to miscommunications and the resulting isolation that many diasporians find themselves experiencing. Similar to the 19th century historical Liberian case, where an entire elite class of diasporians came into conflict with the continental Liberians, many diasporians in Ghana don't fully benefit from the Ghanaian social/cultural experience. Only a few of them, for example, were actively trying to learn any of the local languages to bridge the separation created by our social-cultural diversity. For diasporian women, especially those married to Ghanaian men, they seem to be preoccupied with marriage and family relations.
One message that rang out loud and clear, over and over again from my elder sistas, was that women of the diaspora who married Continental African men often felt like "outsiders" to his family and culture. Even women from other parts of Africa confided to me that "his family" considers the spouse "un-married" until he marries one from his own specific cultural group. Even after many children, including the coveted sons, these women were not validated enough to feel part of the family. Integrating into any family is an obvious task, but it is particularly compounded when one is confronted by a complex set of cultural and moral norms that we don't fully comprehend.
In the Ghanaian case, there are so many cultural and historical issues that we need to critically analyze. "They" grew up in a colonized home fed with tapes promoting Tarzan and Cosby family myths. "We" grew up in a foreign land trained with Tarzan and jungle images. The resulting clash is often awakening and exciting when we communicate and destroy these myths for each other, but painful when we do not. Additionally Ghanaian society seems to deal with apparent "closed cultural" attributes. By "closed cultural" I mean specific cultural groups such as the Ga, the Fanti, and the Ewe tend to remain intact as socio-political-economic groups. When people meet you for the first time they ask several basic questions: Who are you (cultural group) and who is your chief? What is your family name? What do you do? The resulting society is very stratified with many class, caste, religious, educational, and political layers.
In Ghana there is a distinct class of light skinned elites who had European great grandfathers. Their ancestors were the ones who owned the twenty plus castles that dot Ghana's coast line. There are just over thirty of them in Africa, and Ghana has the overwhelming majority of the sites. These European great grandfathers educated their light skinned children to create Ghana's first "intellectual" class. These offspring became rich from the African slave trade. So, in many ways, when we were sold by our Ghanaian relatives hundreds of years ago, we were, in their eyes, already slaves. Today these families still exist, along with the descendants of the rich gold owning chiefs of the North. They walk with a pride and dignity that all the years of colonization could never erase. But this pride, or "elitism", creates subtle, but very real, barriers amongst the Ghanaians themselves, as well as with diasporans. I have been told that you are essentially a nobody unless you have a family name that people recognize as one of the large clan names.
I had to shed a layer of romanticism about formal African education as a way that African culture is passed on. Education in Ghana is not Afrocentric. The colonial vestiges have left many of the schools wallowing in an un-Godly neo-missionary quagmire. I have often engaged in discussions with diasporians in Ghana about our disappointment with the educational system. Many of them expected our Ghanaian brothers and sisters to be more "African" than we were. My response to them was usually that colonization did the same thing to us at home, that slavery did to us abroad.
Miscommunications and myths, from both sides of the water, have often created unnecessary conflicts between diasporans and continental Africans. We ain't rich, and they ain't undisciplined. True enough, sometimes we are not greeted at the airport with open arms, and are perceived as "obronis," a Ga word meaning foreigner or white. Even Ghanaians, returning home after schooling abroad, suffer these same social barriers. Some of us have managed to destroy the Tarzan image in our minds, but have replaced it with an equally dangerous myth. We idealize Africa as a paradise where we think we can pick mangos off of trees, and live on beautiful beaches happily ever after.
Who do we think we are when we return home? Many return as Americans, Jamaicans, or been to's, (Ghanaians who have been to England, their former colonial master.). How we answer the question of our own self-perception will determine how we live, and how we are perceived, when we resettle at home. The answer for many of us is often an emotional collage of conflicting ideas. On one occasion this conflict was vividly illuminated to me while I was passing through a very busy Accra market. The usual crowds, smells, and colors were alive and well. I was stopped by an elderly sista who was admiring my T-shirt which read, "We are Africans Period." This woman, who reminded me of one of my own aunties, warmly held my arms and said, "This is beautiful; thank you for wearing it. It's true we are all Africans." I blushed with pride and a sense of belonging. Later on that same day, while visiting a friend at Ghana University, a student belligerently asked why I was wearing such a thing. We engaged in a friendly debate, very common with Ghanaians, who are known for their hospitality and curiosity. He told me that we needed to forget about that slavery stuff and move on. My emotions were swept back to a sadness my Ghanaian auntie had previously dispelled.
I can say that I have never felt more safe and secure than when I am in Ghana. Day or night, I've felt at peace. My ten year old daughter could go to a neighbor's house, or the corner vendor, at any hour of the day or night and be safe. Ghana still has the extended family structure we reminisce about. Remember when your neighbor down the street was always looking out for you, and would whip you for misbehaving if your mama was not around to discipline you? Now, in America, the fear of being violated is a constant threat, no matter where you work, live, or play. So when asked if I really felt like I was "home," my response is, if home is a place where you can feel safe and secure, and where you and your children are historically connected, then yes, I was at home in Ghana. But when asked to answer the question of whether I will really integrate into the society I must answer, "Maybe my daughter's children will. I will be accepted because I am determined to shed my ignorant attitudes and Westernized behavior." Acceptance is not, however, the same as integration.
The adjustment for "outsiders" within any living environment is a difficult task, and it is particularly more challenging in places like Africa. Those of us who choose to relocate to our ancestral homeland must do so with patience and understanding. If we are to adjust and integrate over time, perhaps generations down the road, we must leave as many as possible of our "Americanisms" behind. Africa is the true source of our salvation. Going home to the motherland is key in our ability to reclaim our original social mores and sense of spiritual balance. Garvey, Malcolm, Harriet, Nkrumah, and Fannie Lou knew this! All human have culture that connects them to their natural homeland. African has historically fed her children, at home and aborad, with the cultural food necessary for surviving and resisting all forms of starvation we have endured as an African people. African is the essence of who we are, who we were, and who we always will be.
Nehanda Imara is a mother, educator, activist, and freelance journalist. She is currently a staff member at San Jose University working as a counselor for Student Development Services.