The Oberlin Stories Project

On her semester in Ghana

Sarah Frank ’09

“Sankofa means “return to your roots.” Sankofa is an important concept, because in order to grow, you cannot always move forward. You must go backwards, and go home, in order to make the distance count.”

Sarah plays with a Ghanaian child.

Tonight, I piled into a small taxi filled with big men, struggling to fit my hips on to the already-occupied front seat. My seat buddy was an artist I know from the Castle, and he turned to me and said, “This is Africa, you know? When you think of Africa, you will remember.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I told him. “I will remember Africa.”

It is both impossible and easy to grasp the idea of leaving Ghana in a week. I am lonely and homesick and ready. My fan broke yesterday and sleeping is becoming a very sweaty affair. Clearly a message that it is time to move on. But I feel like I am still putting the pieces together of what I have learned these last months, and I don’t want that feeling to go away. I am good at adjusting and not afraid of change, but five months is a long time to be away from my other life. How will I return to it? Will it be like turning on a light switch? I feel like I have two distinct existences right now: my life in Ghana and my other life. I am worried that it will be easy and comfortable not to merge them, and I hope I will be able to keep my Ghana life relevant and present in my other life.

I am trying to come up with a grocery store run-in-length answer to the question “How was Ghana?” It is not easy.

How was Ghana?

My experience in Ghana has been wonderful. I was able to see a huge portion of the country and have cultural experiences that most visitors to Ghana never do. SIT did a tremendous job. I am grateful to many, many people who opened their homes and their hearts to me. I am humbled by the generosity of people who materially have little. I am discouraged by many Ghanaians’ idealization of white people and exhausted from too much flirtation and harassment from men. It is not easy to be an Obruni (or a woman) in Ghana. I imagine that it is never easy to be in the minority. It has been an important learning experience for me to know what it feels like to be in a racial minority. It is tiring to be so visible all the time.

Ultimately, I think it is culture that has been most challenging, above and beyond race. Despite my warm welcomes into people’s homes, I have never felt at home in Ghana. It is important for growth to move outside of yourself, to be uncomfortable and unsure and raw. But I have realized that I should not undervalue my own community, shared backgrounds and interests, compatible senses of humor, mutual beliefs. The support that comes from people who can really know you, who don’t need to exercise cultural relativism to find complete common ground isn’t lame or boring, it’s invaluable.

That said, I will really miss Ghana. I didn’t realize that until recently. Some things about being here have been challenging, but I realized yesterday that it really did get easier. Of course, some things continue to be hard, but I truly am comfortable here. It is a different kind of comfortable, obviously, and a lonely kind, but it is mine. I know which Ghanaian foods I like and how to get around. The woman at the corner store knows what I need when I come in, and the local school children have stopped bothering me and just say a pleasant hello when I pass them.

I will miss the colors and the way that the air looks here. Something about it is not the same as at home. The reds are more orange and the greens are denser. In the bush, the vegetation is more three-dimensional, as if just beyond where you are could be something magical. I will not miss being constantly called at by strangers, but I will miss the unsolicited affection from children. I will miss the colorful clothes and glamorous tailored dresses. I think I will even miss sweating all over people and traveling in tro-tros. From the tro-tro, you can buy almost anything at any time, provided that you aren’t in the middle of nowhere. Women (and men) are selling everything from baskets, bowls, and trays that they carry on their heads. I will miss looking out, taking my pick, and buying puah watah (pure water), hard-boiled eggs, plantain chips, and fan yogo out the window. A truly convenient cultural institution in a land of inconvenience.

I am thankful for water, for food, for education, love, and family, everything that makes me privileged and lucky. I believe that I was appreciative before, but now I feel even more grateful. I will come back to Ghana because I have brothers and sisters here, and because some things about it have been too beautiful to leave behind. But, for now, I am ready to come home.

I wanted a break from Oberlin - wanted to get out of “the bubble.” But I realized that I should not undervalue the support and understanding that can come from a community of like-minded people. There is no substitute for the encouragement of critical thinking, for the desire to make change, for the freedom to wear silver spandex without fanfare. It is important to step outside your comfort zone, to redefine yourself and reexamine your values, but not without meticulous appreciation for the zone itself. In Ghana, there is an old system of symbols called Adinkra, and one of them is Sankofa, symbolized by either a bird looking back over its shoulder or an interconnected heart design. Sankofa means “return to your roots.” Sankofa is an important concept, because in order to grow, you cannot always move forward. You must go backwards, and go home, in order to make the distance count.