I looked forward to studying in west Africa, and on my way there, flying across the Atlantic, I couldn't help but think, as many black Americans do, this is my homeland, this is where I am from.
So I was delighted, before classes began, to go with some other students into the heartland. In the small town of Mam Pong, we met this amazing woman dressed in traditional garments.
She was a queen mother in the village. She insisted we stay with her the entire weekend and had us call her Nana, their name for grandmother. She took care of her daughters, sisters, cousins, and all their kids; about 25 children were living in her home. During the weekend, she took us to the installation of the chief-it was beautiful-and introduced us to him and other dignitaries.
But the next day, when I saw Nana, I barely recognized her. All weekend she had been doing her traditional queen mother thing: no makeup, short afro, village clothes. But that morning she put on a suit, heels, makeup, and a wig for her job at the board of education. I was stunned.
"On Mondays," she said, "I switch from being a traditional woman to a modern woman." She explained how she had traveled to America giving programs in public schools and showed us photos of her work with the board of education.
I was so impressed-that she was staying in touch with her roots, fulfilling her role as queen mother and passing the traditions on to her family, while at the same time working and thriving as a professional woman-that she could do all this and still be the same warm, loving, generous person she is-perhaps I could be like her some day, I thought.
Inspired by the experience, at the university I delved deeper into African culture, taking classes in foreign policy analysis; theories of underdevelopment; African singing, dancing, and drumming; African political thought; and Twi, a native language.
Daily life also taught me. Three weeks into the semester, despite having all my shots and medication beforehand, I came down with a combination of typhoid and malaria. I took seven pills three times a day, both for the illness and to counteract side effects: crazy nightmares, mood swings, itching.
Each day I woke up wondering, is the water running? Being sick to your stomach and having no water is terrible. And the sense of alienation-classmates would bring me food but they don't think of illness the way the way we do. Their attitude is, "Oh you're just sick-you'll get better." I was absolutely miserable!
Six weeks later I finally recovered. I felt reborn. I started dancing, going out, doing things again. I made new Ghanaian friends. By the end of the semester I was having a great time.
But so many things are different there: time, for example. A professor may be 45 minutes late for class, but students have to wait until he arrives. A thousand people think nothing of trying to cram into a bus. At the post office, instead of getting in line, everyone rushes the person selling stamps, and restaurant menus refer to nothing that's available.
By the time I left, a lot of my preconceived ideas about my "homeland" had changed. When I met Nana and her family, I'd thought, "We are all the same." But you know, we're not. What my people were reaches back to what Africa was-that's my only connection to the continent.
What I had to understand fully and accept is that I am not what is going on there now. I am of African ancestry, but I am not African. I am not Nana, nor can I ever be. I am an African American!
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