My decision to study abroad in Ghana came as a surprise to many of my classmates. It was well known that the trip would involve a lot of hiking and volunteer work, but I was never known as an outdoorsy person, nor had I shown many altruistic virtues. This was, nonetheless, a simple choice for me. My dad’s side of the family had migrated from Ghana to Grenada generations ago, and in the 40’s my grandfather immigrated to the States for a better life. Our family name – my last name – remains Ghanaian: Quashie. Neither my dad nor my grandfather has ever been to Ghana, so when the opportunity arose to visit the country where my family originated, I knew that I couldn’t couldn’t pass it up.
Preparing for my trip to Ghana was one of the most difficult parts of the experience. I was excited about the unknowns of this trip, and of the opportunity to explore an unfamiliar environment. But, being the irresponsible person that I am, I slept through the orientation, leaving me with only a PowerPoint presentation to know what to bring and what to expect. As my departure day drew closer, I began to realize that the things I was accustomed to would be left behind. I wanted to fit in, to live up to the expectations of my heritage, and to avoid being looked at by Ghanaian locals as a spoiled or privileged black American.
In Ghana, I would wander the markets on days when I didn’t have class. Natives often approached me, speaking to me in Twi, only to realize that I had no idea what they were saying. Until I met a woman by the name of Comfort, who, for the impact she had on my life, I would later refer to as my “African Mummy.” She pressed on, asking me if it was my first time in Ghana. When I answered yes, and she realized that I was a black person from America, her expression transformed from confusion to shock, to excitement. Her excitement and energy moved me emotionally and she made me feel like I was truly meant to be in Ghana.
I can recall having a long conversation with our tour guide, Paul, at a waterfall he had taken us to. Paul spoke to me about how Ghana is on the rise economically as countries like China and India continue to make major investments. He explained that it is important for me to someday return to Ghana with my friends of color so that they, too, could find a better understanding of how the true history of slavery explains the current struggles which black people experience today. Paul went on to emphasize the need for more cross-continental discourse, an effort necessary to reconnect those who were victimized through the African diaspora.
Halfway through the trip I began to ask myself questions. Why was this my first time visiting Africa? Why don’t more African-Americans travel to Africa? I’m convinced the media and education system has brainwashed people with their negative narratives about Africa. The school lessons I learned from were watered down and textbooks emphasized taxes and imported goods as the primary reason for the civil war rather than the truth: slavery. Contrary to common understanding, Africa is more than the war-torn, disease-infested continent. But, the focus on slavery often means completely omitting the teachings about great African civilizations and the country’s important contributions to the world. Africa boasts amazing art, a blossoming fashion industry, and creative scenes around the continent. African art has been underestimated and underrepresented worldwide, yet there is a new generation of contemporary artists from the continent that have become an integral part of the global art scene. Not to mention that Africa has an abundance of natural resources and the youngest population in the world: This large-and-growing youth population has created market potential that could reduce the country’s dependence on the sale of primary commodities and ensure sustainable economic growth.
The African diaspora became a recurring discussion between myself and the locals; our separation became the thing that drew us together. Millions of Africans were dispersed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean through slave trading and this affected the development of much more than Africa alone. Many of those who are part of the African diaspora have become severely disconnected from their home in the wake of the true legacy of transatlantic slavery: that of colonialism and of racism. African people have suffered, and continue to suffer, similar problems and disadvantages even today because of the negative connotations the country is given in the media. For example, even the movies I grew up with depicted Africa as a war-torn place filled with violence, and it wasn’t until recently, in the movie Black Panther, that an African country was depicted as a utopia.
In Ghana, for the first time in my life, I was part of the majority. Being surrounded by people of color gave me a boost of confidence and self-esteem that I hadn’t found in the States. I took an interest in the way the museums in Ghana openly discuss slavery, how they illustrate that the effects of disenfranchisement are still prevalent now, and that they acknowledge the Africans who played a role in the enslavement of their own people by capturing and selling each other to Europeans for weapons. Although black people are the majority in Ghana and the discrimination and mistreatment which blacks face differs depending on region, we are all fundamentally tackling the same issues.
My initial expectations melted away. I realized that the people I encountered have more in common with me than I ever anticipated. Through interactions and experiences with the people of Ghana, I have become a hopeful idealist, a far cry from the introverted realist I once was, Paul was right; visiting Africa is important. I think that everyone in the black community deserves the opportunity to go to Africa; it should be a birthright. These travels could function as a form of reparations for the wrongs done to African-Americans, and would provide necessary cultural experiences for everyone involved. This should be openly offered by African nations that were involved in the transatlantic slave trade, as the unrelenting struggle of African-Americans, from slavery to reconstruction to forced labor camps to Jim Crow to civil rights to mass incarceration, is often lost on them. It can be done, and we can learn. These many realizations are what Ghana has done for me, and the common practice of an African pilgrimage is what I want to do for Africa.
Timothy Quashie ’19 is from Long Island, New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from SUNY Geneseo; before transferring to Geneseo in the Fall of ’16, he attended Bard College. During his time at Geneseo, he was a member of the basketball team and part of Greek Life, where he served as President of Phi Kappa Chi. He took part in Jo Kirk’s Global Development in Ghana course, where he was able to study the social and economic development of the country. Timothy currently works at NYU Langone Hospital as a financial counselor. In his free time he enjoys hiking, reading, and traveling. Photo credit: Tim Quashie