Dorian Webb

ghana

Ghana: Year of the Return, Homeward Bound

dorian webb
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For me, any successful travel incorporates some element of education. Some of it occurs in the days and weeks before leaving, gleaning bits of information about the intended destination – highlights of its history and relevance as well as the best place for a “traditional meal”. Other nuggets of knowledge are transferred in the new, unfamiliar location from the sights seen, the experiences had and the people met.

Having not prepared perhaps quite as much as we should have for our first trip to Ghana for the Year of the Return, which marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the African slave trade, my husband Keith and I were particularly receptive to immersive learning in the home of our ancestors. We were schooled early on as we were fleeced by a group of men who gave us unasked for, personalized trinkets and demanded payment for them when we exited pensive and quiet from the heart wrenching and haunting Elmina, the departure point for slaves being shipped to the Americas.

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On a lighter note, we (re)discovered our love of live music, as we spent many evenings under the stars, slathered with mosquito repellant, listening to old favorites and new, beautifully rendered songs with universal messages of shared struggles, hope and love. We were also reminded that the glory days of staying up past midnight may be behind us when, after doing so for two nights in a row, we slept through our noon departure for a visit to a girls’ STEM school in Accra, where a friend of ours was giving an inspirational talk. Sigh…

Determined to not miss a second major outing in one day, in cocktail attire we loitered in the hotel lobby for three hours before our van was scheduled to depart for our dinner with the British High Commissioner (the equivalent of an Ambassador for current and former British commonwealths). As expected, it was a memorable evening filled with laughter and lively conversation. We admired the expertise involved in crafting a smoothly executed dinner party where the evening began with a champagne reception held on the patio; dinner tempted us to come inside to gather; and the promise of a photo with the High Commissioner, his wife, and a famous British comedian lured us outside to another area where the door was gently closed behind us and the sound of the van’s idling engine was heard, signaling: Time to go.

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I think, however, that my favorite part of the trip was getting to know the owner of the shared home that we stayed in for the remainder of our time in Ghana. An artist and designer, and also the daughter of diplomats, our host, Nana, wowed us with her artistic talent and hospitality. Her home was our space of refuge and inspiration in Accra. Nestled behind high walls, with every manner of flora and fauna coexisting to create a lush, private oasis, her bungalow (which she designed herself) radiated with her personality and charm.

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When we first arrived, Nana and I chatted for hours, sharing our backgrounds and perspectives. Thereafter, whenever our paths would cross, surrounded by her vibrant artworks on multi-toned walls, we’d continue our discussion about design trends we love, our frustration with social media, the best place to find sushi. In short, the meandering conversations you have with good friends.

As Nana said, paraphrasing Maya Angelou (with a touch of surprise), when within a few days of meeting, I had offered to arrange for an art show of her work in my home, “We’re more alike than we are different.” And maybe that, too, is the treasure of travel: being gently reminded of our undeniable connection to others no matter how different you may at first imagine them to be.

As happy as I am to be home, I can’t help but begin to think of the next trip, and what revelations it too, will contain.

Year of the Return, Part 2

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After a succession of long, uneventful flights, my husband, Keith and I finally arrived in Accra, Ghana just before midnight. Having held our expectations at bay, we rushed to embrace the new world that lay before us. First stop: exchanging money on the black market aka conducting a monetary transaction with a man seated on an orange plastic chair along a busy thoroughfare, watched over by a woman selling beaded jewelry and what looked like breath mints. Emboldened by the 520 cedis in our pocket ($100 at our optimal rate of exchange) we took ourselves out to eat at a nearby restaurant, and were given slices of birthday cake by a neighboring table of Lebanese celebrants. An auspicious start!

The following days brought blistering hot weather (the coolest months are July and August- our spring is their “summer”); great food (yucca fries are our new go to); some of the best live music we have heard in years (actually, the only live music we have heard in years); and a renewed admiration for entrepreneurial tenacity (salespeople detecting a brief glance at their wares, bundling up shoes, sunglasses, carved wooden statues or paintings in blankets, and following us for blocks, surrounding us when we paused,  and boldly unfurling their mobile stores on a competitor’s patch of ground in the hopes of selling us a trinket).

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The next day, while Keith spent time with his daughter who was studying at the University of Accra, I hopped in a van with friends old (a Montclair couple that  arrived the night before) and new (an assortment of people from England  that included my friend’s coworker, the founder of a girls  STEM school in Accra, and a famous British comedian) to visit Elmina Castle, the first European slave-trading post in sub-saharan Africa.  Corrugated metal huts, soft green rolling hills, lively conversation and the passing of the snack bag that Keith had thoughtful provided, were constants on the meandering 3+ hour drive along the coast.

At Elmina, we were met by a group of men who seemed to pair with each of us, welcoming us home, calling us brothers and sisters, shaking our hands, asking our names. I felt a flash of embarrassment that I was reluctant to share my name with my persistent escort. Realizing that my travel diet of girl scout cookies was making me edgy, that my years in NYC were sometimes a detriment to my interpersonal skills, and that there was little he could do with that information, I shared my first name. As he carefully wrote it on a piece of paper, I moved on.

It’s hard to describe the visceral impact of that picture-perfect castle, an impressive white fortress that reveals a pleasantly scaled piazza, dotted with potted plants, within its walls. Flanking this cobblestoned courtyard, that would have been at home in the most quaint of European cities, is a series of equally considered rooms, lined with black shutters, each thoughtfully designed for its purpose. I think I am still processing how, for hundreds of years, a structure so graceful could have housed such atrocious acts.

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After a somber tour of the castle, and a quick stop at the gift shop, our group quietly trudged outside.  Once outside, our “greeters” leapt up from lounging on stone walls, and raced to find the people they had spoken to earlier. I heard my name, and saw my “gift”, a shell with a personalized message written in black and blue sharpie, complete with email address in case I wanted to stay in touch with the charlatan who was now shaking me down for $50 for the fist sized memento. Giving him 5 cedis instead, I climbed into the van to join my fellow travelers who each now resignedly held a marked mollusk or a woven name bracelet. Welcome home, indeed…

 

Year of the Return, Part 1

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On a scale of 1 to 10, my interest in visiting Accra, Ghana was about 3. This had nothing to do with the country itself; in my mind it just seemed less foreign, and more staid, than Francophone Africa. 

If I had known that I would be visiting during what is Ghana’s oppressively hot “summer” during our springtime, that number would have plummeted deep into the negative.  But 2019 is the Year of the Return in Ghana, a time that marks the 400th anniversary of the slave trade, and is an occasion for many African Americans return to the motherland to explore their roots and reconnect to their ancestors. It is also where my stepdaughter is spending her junior year abroad. A visit was non negotiable. Fortified with 3 different types of sunscreen (you can never be too sure about adequate sun protection), and two cupcakes (I’ve got to eat!) I was ready for the 19 hour journey to Accra.  

The trip was not off to an auspicious start. A friend who had graciously offered to take us to the airport arrived an hour early. He asked if I was ready. I was not. He loaded my husband’s four overstuffed bags- filled with clothing, a laptop, books and electronics for Ghanaian schoolchildren, and one large, dedicated “snack bag”- into his car. Returning he hovered, eyeing my small carryon bag, half filled with my husband’s clothing. I could sense his eagerness to toss my bag into the back of his car, and sweep us off to parts unknown ON TIME. To distract him from his scheme, I asked that he take my husband to buy sandwiches for the journey. Once they left, I raced to finish last minute to dos: packing, cleaning the fridge and trying to fix my laptop that had been inoperable for months. Eventually realizing the futility of the latter, I resigned myself to typing with two thumbs for a couple of weeks, gathered my purse and my carryon and went out to the curb to make good on my promise to be ready to go when they returned. Roughly a minute passed. I ate a cupcake. The other one looked so forlorn by itself in the pink box, I ate that one too.

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The pastries were a distant memory when we landed at Kotoka International Airport in Accra the next evening. We congratulated ourselves on only forgetting two items in our friend’s car and added ourselves to the snaking line that led to passport control.  As we waited with our mandatory proof of yellow fever vaccination in hand, we were serenaded by a dapper man who, accompanying himself on an electric keyboard sang:

…It is Wednesday

The middle of the week

Relax

You are in Ghana

Welcome to Ghana

Akwaaba (Welcome)…

I was oddly touched by the singer’s earnest vocals and cruise ship energy. As his smooth voice and the plinking of his instrument filled the hall, even the most drowsy among us smiled and bobbed to the beat.  I looked over at my husband, who was elbow deep into his seemingly bottomless snack bag. Yes, our journey had truly begun. We were home. Akwaaba.