Everyone was quick to say how wonderful America (Abrochi) was. Like me, most of these Ghanaians had never even been to Togo, but it didn’t prevent me from thinking of the States as the land of perfection. Our plane from Kotoka to NYC was not a direct one; my mom could not afford a direct flight for four people. I only learned later that direct trips were even an option. When we stopped at Dubai for our transfer, I gasped at how beautiful their airport was, and was the more eager to see JFK. I was certain it would be even better. Of course I was disappointed when I did see JFK, and that initial disappointment was followed by several. It was soon very clear that things were not as perfect in Abrochi as we had assumed.  At school we walked to our classes rather than stayed in a single class and had the teachers come to us. I liked walking in the hallways between classes. It felt interesting. When the teachers walked into our classes we did not have to get up and greet them. I felt I was being rude. Addressing my teachers as sir or madame rewarded me strange looks.  In the hallways, people I had spoken to looked away when my eyes me theirs. I found my giddy hand waves often embarrassingly frozen in midair, and my recognition smiles often transforming into confusion. The most interesting thing at school, however, was the treatment of the substitute teacher. They were utterly ignored. There was this particular teacher who received worse treatment from some of the students. They would throw papers at her when she attempted to teach.

Outside school, I could not understand why there were so many homeless people. Why would their families let them sleep in the streets? Surely an uncle, or cousin, or nephew could help? People asked strange questions like, “Do you like wearing clothes? I know you go naked in Africa.” And “How is it like sleeping in trees in Africa?” Or, “How come you speak such good English when you have just arrived from Africa?” I noticed they always say Africa, like it is a country or something. At first I was shocked by the ignorance, than I was annoyed because I realized I was being looked down upon. I felt insulted. I spoke their language, and yet they knew almost nothing of my people or of my country, nor did they seem to understand that Africa is a continent. By and by I became amused by all of it. I stopped trying to make friends and kept my own company. High school was terrible. But I am glad for it. It prepared me for college.

Though I once had my heart set on going to Legon (University of Ghana), here I was in NY, clueless as to how to get to uni, and which one to go to, besides everyone called it college which was confusing because secondary schools, or high schools, if you please, were called colleges back in Ghana. In fact,

Mawusi Jane Ayiba 2

I had transferred from Ghana National College to John Bowne High School. My school advisor helped me prepare for college. I was very grateful the regents were nowhere as crazy as the SSCE, else I would have flunked. I chose Baruch College because my friend was going there. She was going to major in Business Management. I decide I would major in that, too. Oh but how I hated my college classes. I had looked forward to college for such a long time, and now that I had arrived I went to school unhappy. I did not care about my grades. I only wished to pass. I could not sleep. I was grumpy. Conversing with my student advisor in college—who was so cool I liked to go stop by and say hello—I spoke so wistfully about my English classes and mentioned how I abhorred my business classes. She asked why I wasn’t majoring in English then. I thought her question ridiculous. I mean where will I go with an English degree? I am an immigrant. I owe it to myself, and my family to major in something sensible which would guarantee a job after college and generate enough money to help out. I must make sacrifices; to major in English would be an utterly selfish thing to do. But she had an interesting answer, she said I was more likely to get a job in a field I was passionate in, because I was more likely to pursue these jobs and show my enthusiasm at interviews. The seed was planted and the thought kept germinating in my head. Dare I risk giving my Mother a heart attack? When she’s given me everything? Yet every time I thought of how things would be with a major I cared for, I felt lighter, though scared, I felt happier and excited. So in my junior year I switched my major to English literature, minored in photography and second minored in education. My life changed. My Mother disapproved but when she realized my mind was made, she was supportive. After all I was responsible for my college tuition.

I knew I was in love with photography after I developed my first film and printed my first image. I knew I was really into photography when I told my professor I disapproved of his critique of my work. I had never done that, never questioned a teacher’s critique of my work. In Ghana, the teacher was king. But with all that passion twirling me about, I was becoming a different person. Having always enjoyed poetry, I enrolled in my first poetry class and discovered that it meant so much more to me. My professor, Grace Schulman, was a lovely eccentric woman. She was tall and finely wrinkled and made old age so graceful. She talked softly with a fine raspy voice and when she read poems, I wished she would not stop. She had this curious way of not looking at us when she talked to us. The first question she asked my class was, “Why poetry?” I remember thinking, why not! Schulman gave me a priceless gift, she believed in my writing and she told me so. It was all the excuse I needed to focus on poetry. I took every class, and in those classes I found more of myself. By the end of college I had been published several times in the school’s literary magazine as well as by our online magazine. When I graduated, I started a little writing workshop, The Major Collectives. We named ourselves after Major Jackson, in whose class the majority of us had met.

Having decided to take photography seriously I bought a DSLR (the Nokia D90) and Photoshop CS5 and with the help of lynda.com learned how to edit my images. Before I received my bachelor’s degree, one of the prints made it into a juried exhibition at the school gallery. I am still not over the feeling of seeing my work exhibited. The guilt of doing what I loved never went away. Here is my mom working long hard hours so we can have a place to live and here I was spending my money on a DSLR, focusing on how to write a good haiku, and how to get the pentameter of the sonnet correctly.

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I would go to graduate school, I was certain. The question was for what? Since the answer would not come easily to me, I thought I would take a year to myself, get a job, and figure things out. Of course, I could not find a job, so I started a blog to document life after undergrad, and to distract me from my feelings of guilt and panic. It occurred to me that I ought to have a platform for my photography and poetry, too, so I started another blog. But having been home for several months, no job, and being penniless, I stared crafting to protect me from desperation. I had gone natural again so I started making accessories for my hair. My best friend, India, encouraged me to open a shop on Etsy and sell some of my accessories. At first I thought it was a ridiculous idea but in time I succumbed and opened an online shop, made a few faux flower hair accessories, and waited for someone to buy something. I had not realized, then, that I ought to do more, and was very disappointed when I did not sell anything. My Mom was going home to Ghana to visit my Granny, and feeling sorry for me, she asked if I did like to come along. I quit the online shop, sent out my applications for an MFA in poetry, and happily followed my Mom back to Ghana.

It was exactly what I needed. In Ghana, I realized that I had changed so much in the seven years that I had been away. Though Ghana remained almost unchanged, I could no longer travel in a trotro without an immense fear for my life. I dodged my neighbors so I would not have to stop every two seconds to ask how they are, and be expected to respond to the same question. You see, in Ghana, when someone ask how you are, you must be prepared to stop and converse for at least ten minutes. To just say “I am fine” and walk on is quite rude. Things that were once very normal to me felt strange. Also, I had not realized I had become such a New Yorker. I was in a hurry everywhere. Walking felt wrong. Everyone took their time while I zoomed by. The pace of life felt wrong. Too slow. Trying to get the Internet, I almost died out of impatience. And when I got the Internet it was so slow, I considered banging my head against the wall. Eventually I started to calm down. I realized that I had started taking things a little too seriously. Hanging out with my awesome grandmother and hearing her memories of how I once was gave me a second look of where I was coming from. My friends kept saying that I had not changed at all. This pleased me. Though I knew they were wrong. I came to realize the opportunities that NYC granted me. I started feeling happier, and with that I felt inspired. I made my Mom buy me several wax prints when we went to the market, and I brought them all back to Queens with the intention of taking another go at my handmade business. Soon after my arrival, I got a job in a spice and tea shop and enjoyed it so much that I put my business on the back burner. Fortunately, unjust circumstances led me to quit. I went back to my business and decided that my best bet at the moment was to work for myself. Besides, I am a very hard worker, and very self-motivated. I renamed my brand Mawusi, after my amazing mother, and started devoting more of my time to the brand.

Jane odartey

Interestingly, I did not get accepted into any MFA programs in poetry. I ended up in an MA in English Literature at Brooklyn College. At first I was angry and I stopped writing poetry, but soon, I had to go back to my writing. I sort of need to write. These days, even though I spend most of my time creating, shooting, and marketing for Mawusi, I make time to work on school, my poetry, photography, and my blogs. I find that managing my time in such ways that allow me to insert my passions into my daily routine keeps me sane. Of course I am penniless and I stoop to blackmailing my brothers, or begging my mother for money every now and then (I have lost my sense of pride), and there is always an influx of intense panic when school is about to start and I cannot think of where my tuition will come from. But I am very happy. There is no other way I would rather live my life. Besides, I have immense faith that soon enough my passions will cough up enough to buy food and pay the rent. Life in Abrochi has not been as easy as I had thought, but growing up in Ghana had more than prepared me for it. My first eighteen years in Ghana taught me to be unafraid of hard work, and impressed upon me the belief that one could be very happy even with very little money. Now a Ghanaian American, I hold steadfast to this knowledge.

Jane Odartey Afropolitan Diary

 -Jane Odartey