by Kiki Nartey, GHANA
I would not describe my recent trip to Ghana as merely a ‘holiday’. I would describe it as a two-week crash course in rediscovering my roots. Growing up in London is all I have ever known; I was born here, raised here and educated here.
That said, I was raised in a typical African household. From the strict nature of discipline, to the Ghanaian dishes we would eat, and the Twi (Ghanaian Akan dialect) my parents would speak to and around us, my upbringing has always been imbued with a strong Ghanaian influence. Balancing this with my equally embedded Britishness has struck up a conflict between my British identity and my Ghanaian identity- I have even found myself writing countless drafts of this introductory paragraph in an attempt to conceptualise this!
As a second-generation immigrant, I would be regarded as being part of the British African diaspora. The very essence of having a ‘scattered’ identity has strengthened the belief that that despite living in London, I generationally come from somewhere else. Therefore, navigating a society in which race precedes nationality has encouraged me to embrace my blackness; and I ultimately credit my Ghanaian origins for founding a racial and cultural identity that I can proudly claim as my own.
At the same time, I could never- and still cannot- claim to know what it is like to be Ghanaian. I have never lived there; at the very most I have only vicariously ‘experienced’ aspects of Ghana through my parents; and my limited knowledge of the country’s history added to my lack of cultural empathy. These confusing and frustrating nuances in my dual identity fuelled my desire to see Ghana for myself and get a real, concrete sense of my West African origins.
I was so excited to have finally been granted this first-time opportunity in September of this year!
Stepping off the plane was a memorable moment for me. I received the warmest welcome from Accra- quite literally. An intense wall of heat ambushed me, instantly confirming my arrival on the African continent. When exiting the airport, I was met with a wonderfully chaotic scene. Unlike the calm, uniform way in which people in British airports wait and hold up their signs for their expecting guests, I had numerous taxi drivers approaching my dad and I asking to give us a ride home. My ears drowned in the relentless honking of cars, and the air was filled with smells of smoked food. It had not even been an hour, but the culture shock was immediate- and I revelled in that.
For the first week I was a typical tourist reacting with fascination and excitement to observations that would have been so mundane to the average Ghanaian. I remember seeing my dad casually wind down the car window to buy phone credit from a guy who was selling it in the midst of dense traffic amongst countless other sellers in the road. He’d also point out the several mango, coconut and plantain trees that would conveniently stand on every corner of the street. However, as time went on, I grew more accustomed to my surroundings. Ghana became my new normal so much so that I was able to confidently hop on tro-tros (Ghanaian public transport) and Ubers without my dad as a chaperone, and also learned the very necessary art of bargaining, not allowing my English accent to be an easy target for being ripped off!
One thing that struck me about being in Ghana-as obvious as this may sound- was being surrounded by black people. As a Londoner, seeing black people and multitude of other races for that matter, is by no means a rarity. However, there is still that need to find and cultivate spaces that we can identify with, particularly within a wider, predominantly white British society. It was therefore very refreshing to not have to even think about that in Ghana, since the entire country is made up of people who look like me.
This is why I feel a sense of irony in writing this blog post. Most- if not all- the posts in The Travellers of Colour Collective speak about being a minority in a racially homogenous society; however for me, I was part of the majority. For the first time, I was travelling to a less culturally diverse environment in which I not an ‘ethnic minority’, a label that is most certainly placed upon me here in the UK, and in many other parts of the world.
Whilst I may have racially blended into Ghanaian society, I was still discernibly different to the Ghanaian people. Perhaps it was my paisley patterned flatform trainers, or my black velvet crop top and hoop earrings that blew my cover as a ‘Westerner’. This was confirmed by the numerous random greetings I would get from locals who would affectionately say, “You are welcome [here]”-or- “Akwaaba”, recognising that I was not a native, but still embracing me as part of the diaspora. They still saw me as one of them, and their warm hospitality made me feel more at home in the homeland.
Also, having dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins already living in Ghana was incredibly comforting. Even though I had never met most of them, it was really reassuring to know I had such a strong familial base that I could depend on. It was a strange feeling introducing myself to relatives, but amazing nonetheless to spend time with them, particularly at family gatherings, and establish tangible relationships with them.
Marcus Garvey once said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. This perfectly sums up why learning about Ghanaian history was top of my to-do list.
It was incredible to learn about The Big Six, the faces on the Ghanaian cedi banknote, and their extraordinary role in leading Ghana out of British colonialism and into independence. Prior to this, I had only known about Dr. Kwame Nkrumah as the main spearhead of this historic event. Speaking of whom, I really got to see the extent of just how revered he is in Ghana; the huge bronze statue of him that stands right in the centre of the Mausoleum (also named after him) is quite hard to miss, and some of Ghana’s main tourist sites are a direct result of his legacy: such as the huge Independence Square, and Osu Castle, a ceaselessly colonised fort that Nkrumah reclaimed by making it the new residency of every future Ghanaian Prime Minister. I was amazed to see the immortalisation and adoration of Nkrumah by modern day Ghanaians, but equally surprised to learn about his ironically unpopular, dictatorial style of leadership at the time of his role as Prime Minister- and subsequent impeachment by a military coup.
The one time I cried in Ghana was during my visit to the slave castles. Harrowing doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of being physically present at the torture chambers of thousands of our ancestors. The disturbing paradox I found whilst being at Cape Coast and Elmina castles respectively was how picturesque the backdrop was. The bluest seas, majestic palm trees and vast sandy beaches surrounded me. What sounds like a perfect holiday destination is actually a sinister disguise for an incredibly dark, haunting history. Each tour guide took us inside a range of male and female slave dungeons. They were cramped, airless and lightless, and I was particularly struck by the palpable mustiness that hit me as I entered each room; it’s like you could smell the remnants of pain and suffering in the air alone. I will never forget the numbness and disbelief I felt when the tour guide informed us that the very floor we were standing on was made up of human faecal matter, hardened and matted over centuries. I struggled to process the facts and figures the tour guides threw at us- around 200 slaves were kept per tiny dungeon for 23 hours a day over a 3-month period, and 1500 slaves filled the entire castle at a time. By sickening contrast, the few slave masters’ rooms were spacious, airy, with a perfect view of the sea. I was even more infuriated by the offensively placed ‘Psalm: 132’ at the top of one room; a room where slave masters would hold their church services, while they imprisoned hundreds of helpless slaves in the floor directly below them. My anger turned to abject sadness as we were led through a dark tunnel to the Door of No Return. As the name suggests, it was extremely hard hitting to know that this was the very last place that millions of ancestors would ever see of their homeland, before being shipped away, packed like sardines, to their unwanted destinations.
I wanted to end my time in Ghana on a high. I felt guilty for wanting to move on from the distressing day at the slave castles, but also reassured in knowing it would be a history lesson I’d never forget. My birthday was a good excuse to lift my spirits. What was so unique about celebrating my birthday in Ghana was the fact that I happen to share this day- the 21st September- with a certain someone- Ghana’s very first Prime Minister and leader of the Independence Movement, Dr Kwame Nkrumah! For my birthday to be a national holiday was an amazing coincidence that reinforced my personal affinity with Ghana. My family and I went to Sky Bar, a rooftop restaurant and bar situated on top of a trio of luxury penthouse apartments. I experienced the most stunning 360-degree night views of Accra, along with an indulgent 3-course meal and cocktails. It’s going to be a challenge to top this particular birthday as I could not have honestly asked for or think of a better present than to be in the heart of the homeland.
They say there is always a right time for everything, and waiting till I was in my twenties to go to Ghana was perfect timing. I certainly wouldn’t have acknowledged the personal significance of this trip had I gone when I was a teenager. I’m aware that a rosy, short-lived experience like the one I had is vastly different to permanently living in the country; however, I still have a deep longing to go back. Ghana has given me a renewed respect for my parents’ core values. It has re-educated me on an inspiring evolution through centuries of historical trauma; and has fulfilled my greater purpose in re-affirming my sense of personal heritage.