Studying Abroad in Ghana and Lessons on Pan-Africanism
One time while I was studying in Accra, Ghana, I acquired some rather irritating bug bites. I went to the doctor to get some proper ointment to heal them. While I was in the waiting room, the medical assistant who was registering my information began to ask me some questions. He asked,
“Where are you from in the world?”
I responded, “I’m African, but I live in California.”
“Oh okay, what part of Africa?” he replied swiftly.
(This kind of question comes up a lot when I tell people I’m African: “Which part?” I always intend for my answer to be as clean and understandable as if I responded with the name of an African nation, but I can never seem to avoid extra explaining. Is “I don’t know,” enough?)
I explained that I know I’m of African descent, but I don’t know exactly where in Africa my ancestors came from.
“Oh I see,” he paused. “Then, you mean you’re Black American, see?” He was smiling at me.
“No, I’m African.” I resisted.
He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he said nothing. Maybe I gave the notion that I didn’t want to debate anymore; I was irritated. This wasn’t the first time (or the last) that someone tried to correct the way I identify myself. I see myself as being African, and I wanted others to see that, too, or at least respect it. I continued to wait for the doctor, in silence. As the assistant was leaving the waiting room area, he paused as he passed me. He bent down gently and said,
“Don’t worry. Allah wanted ‘that’ to happen, so we Africans could be all over the world. It’s good.”
I was very surprised he said that to me, to say the least.
By ‘that’ he was referring to what is The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the persistent, genocidal action where millions of Africans were transported by sea from Africa to the Americas, Europe, and Asia, under the conditions of chattel enslavement. Indeed, it is the progeny of Africans that survived the Middle Passage and further tragic bondage that compose large concentrations of what we know now to be the African Diaspora.
After simmering down a bit, I realized my counterpart was right: The African Diaspora is good. Rather, it is wonderful. However, the involuntary conditions, and generations of agonizing lifestyle, were not wonderful for the enslaved Africans living through it. Even now this reality can still exist as an acrid ancestral memory, for all Africans.
My experience with the doctor serves as an example of many similar conversations where my self-definition was questioned. Living in Ghana and being an intern at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture continued to develop and balance my African identity.
When someone is talking about “Black Americans” or “Black people,” I know they are talking about the group that I am part of, but I just see us as African. The ability to define one’s self is elating, and should never be compromised. To all Black peoples in the world, I encourage you to always use the identity terms that define you, yet simultaneously accept into your reality that you are part of the African Diaspora. To acknowledge you are part of the African Diaspora doesn’t necessarily mean that you must now configure being African into your identity. Identifying your own African-ness is simply empowering, prideful, and allows you to access a global identity beyond your nation of citizenship.
Long before my trip to Ghana exposed me to a different side of my identity, a college course I took in the States, called “Introduction to Black Psychology,” was my first exposure to the idea that I was African. It was my first time learning anything about Africa, besides the Darfur Genocide, and the insight was developing new points of view and unsurpassed personal confidence. I was encouraged to continue such studies, and decided to major in Africana Studies in college. I would use my college education for my own personal benefit.
My undergraduate curriculum wasn’t teaching me enough about Africa, so I began reading for myself beyond school assignments. I would request African Writer’s Series books for holiday gifts, and I would also order them online with my own money. Soon, I had read novels by authors from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Jamaica, Namibia, and more. It was through African historical fictions that I learned factual, specific information about other cultures (languages, terms, dishes, daily routines, etc.). By my final year of college, it only made sense for me to study in Africa in an attempt to keep fueling my passions.
Perhaps now you can understand the initial letdown I felt when, even in Ghana, I was still being accepted as a non-African. Often being called “obruni,” the word for ‘white foreigner,’ was a reminder of how people saw me. None of this made me angry necessarily, but it didn’t fit my ideas of myself. This experience was not too constant or overwhelming, though; I also met many people who understood me. I was welcomed as a sister of the Diaspora. People congratulated me on making it back to Africa, and realized the value of the journey for me.
My pan-African mentality combined with the nature of my studies made The W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana, seem like a fit internship site for me. I have an insurmountable respect for Dr. Du Bois’ literary work, which I was exposed to in my Africana Studies career. In 1961, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who was the President of Ghana at the time, invited the Du Bois family to Ghana to execute The Encyclopedia Africana. He welcomed the Du Bois with a home and research facilities. Du Bois passed two years after arriving in Ghana. The work he completed is still preserved, as is his home, which has been turned into an educational touring museum and is the heart of the center. Du Bois and his wife, Shirley, are also resting on site.
I learned a lot about Dr. Nkrumah at the Du Bois Center, and I came to highly respect him as a Pan-Africanist. I became fascinated with his relationship to the Diaspora. More than that, I feel like Kwame Nkrumah helped remind me to have pride not only in being African, but in being an African of the Diaspora as well. I learned that in the hours of resisting British occupation and leading Ghana to independence, Dr. Nkrumah would study tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement and organize paralleled activity in Ghana. Ghana was led to independence on March 6, 1957, and continues to be a positive example for other African countries. I was so proud to learn that my lineage’s response to oppression gave inspiration to other Africans, and contributed to the further liberation of African people. In my aggressiveness to build my own African self, I wanted to undermine my host land experience. I realize how absurd that was. Coming from generations in America is part of my African experience, and I must embrace it proudly.
A holistic benefit from my internship was realizing that I am, myself, a Pan-Africanist. In my own words, Pan-Africanism is an active ideology that aims to unite all Africans around the world in the name of improving the quality of life for all Africans. One of the main goals of Pan-Africanism is to reassign Africa complete self-governance and complete control over her natural resources, which will lead to direct profit and a perpetuated position in international economic markets. I believe in the idea of one African people. One blanket, many threads. While many people may support these beliefs, identifying as a Pan-Africanist means accepting a responsibility to take continuous, forward action. A Pan-Africanist stands intolerant of human rights violations against any Africans. Small, sustainable action is the best action to take towards intended results; we want to create beneficial solutions that can be maintained. I’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. Nkrumah’s book Class Struggle in Africa:
Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation. The notion that in order to have a nation it is necessary for there to be a common language, a common territory and common culture has failed to stand the test of time or the scrutiny of scientific definition of objective reality… The community of economic life is the major feature within a nation, and it is the economy which holds together the people living in a territory. It is on this basis that the new Africans recognise themselves as potentially one nation, whose dominion is the entire African continent.