As we near the end of the semester, a solemn hollowness has pervaded the halls of our once lively international hostel.
It’s finals week and, if that doesn’t give us enough to lament, the clock is winding down for semester-long international students.
For those traveling homeward in a few days, the moment has come to reflect upon these last four months in Ghana. Undoubtedly, those going home will not leave empty-handed, but with a wealth of information and experience — not to mention lasting friendships.
Farewell may be bittersweet for many, though, particularly those African-American students that came to reconnect with their roots and finally experience what it is like to be part of the majority, only to be considered just another “obruni,” translated “white foreigner,” by most Ghanaians.
According to Illinois Wesleyan University anthropology associate professor, Rebecca Gearhart, “African-American students who expect their appearance to at last help them ‘fit in,’ but find themselves still alienated, the experience [of being in Africa] can be especially distressing.”
In an ironic twist of fate, African-American students in search of bonding with their long lost African brothers and sisters instead end up, in many instances, finding more in common with their white American counterparts.
Studying journals kept by African-American students in Kenya, Gearhart analyzed the experience of one student by the pseudonym, Tami: “When Tami is confronted with cross-cultural barriers that separate Americans and Kenyans, namely language and economic status, a black-white racial matrix no longer explains her position relative to her fellow Americans.”
Gearhart continues, “Tami discovers that in the Kenya setting, the cultural background she shared with her white American peers is more significant to her than the skin color she shares with the Africans she encounters . Discovering that she has re-aligned herself with white people and is now identified as one of them by people of her own race, turns the black and white world that Tami is familiar with inside-out.”
Tami’s experience in Kenya largely resonates with that of many African-American students in Ghana.
“At home, I’m African-American and here I’m American-African,” said Francesca Gibson, a CIEE exchange student from Maryland.
According to Gibson, she is not genuinely considered part of either culture, always defined in terms of another race instead of more simply American or African.
Aware of this fissure, the Ghanaian government, which is intent on using Israel as a model to reel in descendents of African slaves back to Ghana, has engaged in a major advertising campaign encouraging Ghanaians to treat African-Americans like distant relatives as opposed to rich obruni tourists.
Other measures taken by the government include plans to offer lifetime visas and relaxing citizen requirements for descendents of African slaves.
In discussing these efforts undertaken by the government, J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, Ghana’s tourism minister, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “We want Africans everywhere, no matter where they live or how they got there, to see Ghana as their gateway home.” The goal, she said, is to “help bring the African family back together again.”
This remains a formidable task, especially in a context where culture seems to supersede race.
The question remains, what is home for African-Americans, the trans-Atlantic slave theft’s displaced people?
For Gibson, home is both Ghana and the United States.
When asked whether a lack of a fixed location to call home makes her to some extent homeless, Gibson cocks her head back in reflection and after a moment said, “no, it makes me homefull.”
Luci Storelli-Castro is a senior political science and philosophy major. Her column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.