A Journey to Africa

Students reflect on an educational—and emotional—trip to Ghana

This is an expanded version of the roundtable discussion that appeared in the spring 2020 issue of Arches.

The history of Ghana, on Africa’s western coast, is, in part, a brutal one. From the 1500s through the 1800s, it was a centerpiece of the European slave trade, with millions of Africans captured, marched to the coast, held in dungeons in “slave castles,” and ultimately put onto boats for the Americas, to spend the rest of their lives in slavery. Visitors to Ghana today can learn about that history as well as the country’s vibrant current culture—from its kente weaving villages to its cities, its languages, its food, and its people. Over the winter break earlier this year, 17 Puget Sound students, led by Visiting Assistant Professor in African American Studies LaToya Brackett (pictured at right), spent three weeks in Ghana, on the first Puget Sound course trip to the African continent. For the students—some black, some biracial, some Latina/o, some white, and all but one female—the trip was the culmination of the class AFAM 310, African Diaspora Experience, which began in the fall. In February, we brought seven of the participating students together in Wheelock Student Center and asked them to reflect on their experiences. Melvin Rouse Jr., assistant professor of psychology, moderated the discussion, which lasted nearly three and a half hours. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.

If you didn’t do anything else there, the market itself could tell you so much about Ghana. It was everything—a mile worth of stuff. If you want to see peak Ghanaian culture, it’s there.”

– Blake Bouligny ’20, majoring in business administration, minoring in African American studies

I want to hear about Day One. You’re stepping off the plane in Accra, and the air smells a little bit different, the surrounding architecture looks different. What were those first few moments like?

Jade Herbert ’21, psychology and African American studies major: I’ll never forget it. As soon as I stepped off, the humidity hit, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” That was that moment where I thought, OK, I’m going to have to adapt. I’m not in America. I’m not at my home. I’m going to have to figure out how to navigate this space, because I can’t turn back around.

You had all the semantic knowledge—you had read the texts, you’d heard the stories, you’d been told about the cultural mores. But now you were there and actually experiencing this. What was that like?
Lauren Johnson ’21, majoring in African American studies

Jo Gudgell ’20, African American studies major, sociology and anthropology minor: That was the main thing I took away from the trip—that there’s such a huge difference between studying something in a classroom, knowing it on an intellectual level, and actually feeling it. The trip was deeply humbling for me, because I know I work hard as a student, I do my best, and I consider myself a pretty good student in AFAM [African American studies]. But then having to be uncomfortable, in a way that I [as a white person] never had to be uncomfortable before, just reminded me that it is a lifelong process. It’s something that I will never really, deeply know.

I’m extremely curious what drew each of you to this trip in the first place.

Grace Eberhardt ’20, African American studies and biology double major: This was the only study abroad experience that actually seemed interesting to me. It was just cool to go somewhere that’s not overly visited in study abroad—and also to go with African American studies. It seemed like a unique experience that I wanted to take advantage of.

Blake Bouligny ’20, business major, African American studies minor: I never really wanted to go abroad—I just never wanted that to be part of my college agenda. But I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.

Makenna Hess-Fletcher ’22, African American studies major, Spanish minor: I thought, I’ll go to the meeting, see what it’s about. I think the fact that Dr. Brackett, a black woman, was leading the trip was really important for me; it made me feel safe in going. And the fact that it would be three weeks felt good—not too long, but enough to get over the nerves of going abroad.

Erica Greening ’21, African American studies major: For me, also being a black woman, having a black woman leading the trip made me feel more secure in my own hopes and desires—and in my anxieties—about traveling. I had never been abroad before, so it was nice to feel reassured that those were very valid things to feel—but also to feel pushed to step out of my comfort zone and try something new and different.

Herbert: Going to Ghana was something I always had wanted to do, and I was bummed out when I got [to Puget Sound] that there wasn’t a program for Ghana. And then this was offered.

What about the logistics of getting ready—passports, visas, and all that? That would be tough.

Herbert: It was for me. Especially in my community, nobody’s ever gone out of the country; they haven’t had to use a passport. They don’t know the first thing about traveling. Dr. Brackett held my hand through the whole process of getting the passport and the visa. I’m glad that I did it, because I want to travel, and I now have the essentials to do it. It wasn’t so hard to get everything, but I thought it would be, because it’s so beyond what my people did.

The slave trade was just so much bigger than what we think it is. Every step of the way, death was just there, present. I had never really understood that fully.”

– Erica Greening ’21, majoring in African American studies

Gudgell: Dr. Brackett set up a structure for us, as far as logistics go. We delegated certain tasks and “captain” work to different people. She made it known that we were going to be responsible for ourselves and for helping each other out. Sometimes that felt like a lot, but in hindsight, I think she did a very intentional job of setting it up so that we knew she would oversee things and make sure we were OK, but that ultimately, we were really in charge of ourselves.

Bouligny: I’ve had Dr. Brackett in more than one class, and she’s never the type of professor to hold your hand. As soon as you step in her class, you are accountable for you. So I knew what I was getting into.

Sammie Walimaki ’20, Spanish culture and literature major; education studies, Latina/o studies, and African American studies triple minor: It was nice that Dr. Brackett was so familiar with the country and that she had friends there who we got to meet, and she knew some locals. She was very comfortable there. And she asked us to each take on one thing—whether it’s surveys, or taking photos of the trip, or monitoring people’s health, or managing medication—she was asking us to be aware of ourselves and aware of how our peers were doing. For me, I grew up with only one parent, and my mom was an immigrant from Northern Europe, where it’s very individualistic. So it was different to be on a trip where you’re asked to not only monitor and recognize what’s coming up for you and address that, but also to notice how the group is doing, what the group is needing.

There was a class that you all had to take in the fall—AFAM 310—before going on the trip. What did Dr. Brackett have you all doing to get prepared?

Bouligny: There was a lot of reading, which gave us insight into the culture that we were about to dive into. We also talked about what we’re going to be doing there, what we can and cannot do there. Reflecting on remaining ourselves.

Khalila Fordham, Psy.D., psychologist/multicultural support specialist, Counseling, Health, and Wellness Services

Greening: We talked a lot about, essentially, how do you present yourself in a space where you are an outsider? And recognizing that some of us are used to navigating the world like that, and some of us aren’t. That was something that we really discussed a lot: We needed to act a certain way, to not feed into the tropes or stereotypes of American students studying abroad. We also talked about very real physical things—what our bodies would be going through, traveling for a long time, and then being in a space that is so different from our climate.

Now you’re in Africa—let’s talk a little bit about the marketplace. [laughter] I hear the chuckles—what popped into your head there?

Bouligny: That was real Ghanaian culture right there. If you went to Ghana and didn’t do anything else, the market itself could tell you so much about Ghana. It was everything—a mile worth of stuff. If you really want to see peak Ghanaian culture, it’s there. It was insane.

Herbert: I remember after I went to the first one, I was like, “Ah, I can’t do this again.” I was so overwhelmed. I can go out and have a good time in spaces that are very packed. But that one—I think it was the smells, then the crowdedness. It was so much. And it was hot—the time of the day we would go, noon to 3 p.m., is the time you do not want to be outside. So it’s crowded, it’s hot, I’m trying not to bump into people, I’m trying to navigate the space but also worried about being called at and then trying to not get lost. But in general it’s like our shopping centers. You get your food, you get your clothes. It’s what we do—just outside.

Were any of you worried about buying things and maybe stepping into some cultural appropriation territory?

Gudgell: There were a lot of conversations about that on the trip, especially in relation to the fabric with different prints on it. I don’t really think any conclusion was reached because—I don’t know, it’s a very important issue, but it’s also so subjective. Different people, and especially white students, approached it in different ways. Some of them were asking the black students, “Is this OK?” I feel like it just became such a focal point of the trip, in some ways. I think it’s a very important issue to consider, but if it takes up that much time, then maybe just don’t buy it. [laughter] Focus on other aspects of the trip.

Greening: Also, the white students just went through the market—they didn’t really engage with the vendors or buy anything. I thought that was really interesting.

Hess-Fletcher: I also noticed something with that. It was kind of cool being in a market where the products are for black people. Some of us saw things we wanted—like the shea butter. And the white students didn’t want anything from that market, but now I’m thinking it wasn’t really for them. So it makes sense that they didn’t see any of that stuff as consumable for them. They were like, “I’m looking for the art.” They wanted to go to the woodcarving place, get the earrings and things that are approved by Western society. They didn’t want any of the everyday black people things.

Erica Greening: I guess buying black soap is not exciting. [laughter]

Makenna Hess-Fletcher: Right. For us it’s exciting.

I want to know what it was like for the black students, to be African American, but not Ghanaian. What pieces of yourself did you have to downplay to fit in? And how did you work through that?

Greening: For me, that can be boiled down one experience. We all got our hair done in Ghana, and I said to one of our student leaders from the University of Ghana, “I don’t know, I’ve never gotten a haircut before.” She said, “Well, let me touch your hair.” And she said, “It’s very soft, the texture of it—it’s different.” I never thought about it that way, because my whole life everyone told me that my hair is coarse. She was observing that it looked the same, but it felt different—and that’s how I felt in Ghana. If I was somewhere with other black students, people could tell that I was not Ghanaian, but some would still try to talk to me in Twi [the local dialect]. And I’d have to say, “I don’t really know what you’re saying.” But it was very comforting, the fact that I’m not the only one walking around black; I can really just be with myself and not be afraid to be in a space. On the other hand, I knew that I was different, and all the other Ghanaians knew that I was different. There was always that feeling around. It was interesting to observe that—to feel just slightly different.

Herbert: I kept going back to my Americanism, because I felt like that was the only thing that made me different: being an American. When I was getting my hair done, multiple people thought I was Ghanaian—the woman was touching my hair and she asked, “Are you Ghanaian?” And I wondered, Why is she asking me that? Is it because I’m dark? Then she said, “No, your hair is kinky. It’s nappy.” And I thought, Oh. Cool. She was saying, “You have to be Ghanaian—you look Ghanaian, you have the facial features, your hair is this way.” Multiple people did that to me. It made me feel like my only difference was the fact that I just wasn’t born there. I didn’t feel like a minority there. I didn’t feel like I was any different from anyone else, except the fact that I couldn’t say what region I was from or speak Twi.

Elena Staver ’20, majoring in psychology and minoring in African American studies

Hess-Fletcher: My experience was a little complex. I feel like I blended there more than I can ever blend here, being whiter skin and biracial—I’m mixed with African American and white. I don’t really understand it here, let alone in that context. And someone told me, “You are home,” and that set with me. Then I would also be called an obroni, which is like “foreign” or “strange.” So I felt like I belonged there more, but I wasn’t able to completely blend and just exist. But I still felt better than I do here.

There was a moment in the slave castles when the tour guide was telling us that the biracial children would be used for negotiation. I started to reflect on that, and my own position—maybe being selected for certain things to please white people, because I’m a black but a little bit closer to white. I’m definitely still processing that. It’s a rolling process of figuring out how my biraciality works in these spaces.

Bouligny: I had an experience in the salon where Makenna was getting her hair braided, and I was getting my hair braided, and they still managed to gravitate towards Sammie [who is white and was along to take pictures]. The whole few hours I was there, I felt invisible, even in the black space that I always seem to feel comfortable in. It was really weird for me.

Herbert: I felt the same thing, but I didn’t process it in that way. Daniel [Daniel Espinoza ’22, a Latino student on the trip] came with me the second time to get my hair braided, and they were all over him, but I looked at it as, They see me as being normal, and Daniel or Sammie or white people are the different ones. They are always going to get that attention, because they’re foreign. In that moment, we weren’t foreign—they were foreign. I took it as, I’m invisible because I belong in this space, and this space works for me.

Bouligny: I think it was just because I know black spaces when I see black spaces, and then being in a black space in a black country, I thought, I’m doubly protected right here. But I didn’t feel super “there.” I was there, but I didn’t feel like I was being talked to. But then, I also felt comfortable because I wasn’t being watched. I didn’t have to worry about speeding on the freeway. I didn’t have to worry about people thinking I’m stealing. And that made me comfortable. But I think internally, I was like, I’m just another black person. That’s all I am.

There were times on the trip when you were divided into “affinity groups”—students who identified as black in one group, white students in another, and the two students of color who weren’t black in another. It allowed you to experience certain things just with your peers. What was that like?

Greening: For me, I’m from Seattle, and being at a predominantly white institution, as well, I’m constantly just suppressing things that bother me. I’m constantly just telling myself, Got to keep moving. You got to keep moving, got to get through the day. In Ghana, we would be in our affinity groups and then I’d be, “You know, I didn’t realize that bothered me, but it actually bothered me,” or, “Oh yeah, that was kind of strange.” I felt validated in my observations. I think that was really important to me, to realize that I don’t need to suppress things in order to get by. Sometimes it was emotional, but a lot of times it was just, “OK, that was strange, and you saw that too. OK.” I just felt connected to other people, which was nice.

I wanted to ask you, Grace, about the affinity group, because being a non-black person of color, you were with Vivie Nguyen [Puget Sound’s director for intercultural engagement] and Daniel Espinoza—all three of you being non-black people of color. How did you all work together to process the experience?

Eberhardt: It was really nice, because it felt very intimate. First of all, I didn’t want to take up space in a group with my black peers. I wanted them to have the space that they needed. But also, not being in the white group, I didn’t have to think so hard as to how I’m going to say things, policing my words—I didn’t have to do that. It was nice to talk to people and be confused as to where we are in this [black/white] dichotomy that we see in Ghana, and how I felt like my identity changed depending on who I was next to—which I also feel in the U.S. It was just really nice that we had similar experiences. I didn’t expect to grapple with my identity as much as I did. I thought, Oh, I’m just going to be a white American there, but that wasn’t always the case. And I was not mentally prepared for that.

From my positionality as a white student, it’s important to have an experience where you work on not expecting to be the center, not expecting to be the norm.”

– Sammie Walimaki ’20, majoring in Spanish culture and literature, minoring in education studies, Latina/o studies, and African American studies

I want to touch on the “slave castles,” and, in particular, the dungeons, which can be one of the most emotional parts of a trip to Ghana. What did you expect them to be like? And how did you feel when you were there?

Bouligny: I definitely felt waves of emotion come over as we walked through the castles and heard what happened in every room, or dungeon, or cell.

Hess-Fletcher: It was more of a physical reaction that my body had—I could feel the energy and the pain, the heaviness of it—than an experience that would evoke tears. It was a spiritual connection to the space and the pain that our ancestors went through.

Anna Mondschean ’21, majoring in African American studies and minoring in education studies and gender and queer studies

Herbert: I didn’t expect to be so desensitized from it. Not that I was dismissing it; I was just like, This is here, it happened. I’m privileged enough to even be in this space and see what happened to my ancestors, but I felt I was walking around in the space the same way I feel I walk around on the grounds that we have here [on campus]—this is native land and there’s genocide on many lands that we walk on. In Ghana, I knew I was walking on a piece of history that is directly connected to me. But I wasn’t surprised at what I heard, because I knew how cruel everything was.

Greening: The only time where I was truly tearing up was when we were at the Door of No Return. It was because we were in the dungeon. You could feel the heaviness of the air, and the smells are still kind of there, and the scratches on the wall. You see that this was very painful. We were all very quiet, rightfully so. But we were also trying to navigate the stuff that we were seeing from other people visiting, and I was getting really angry at the white folks who were just laughing it up, having a good time, trying to take silly photos, and me being like, “Uh, literally millions of people were murdered here.” Then also knowing that I wasn’t just visiting for myself but for my whole family—that they were expecting me to report back on the stuff that I saw and what I felt, and knowing that I had to be present in the moment in order to truly take it in. It was important to me that I notice details that you can’t really get from a photo: how slick the stones were when you’re walking, or truly how dark it is, and how the air just sits in the dungeon.

The folk in the castle who were not really careful with their reactions—do you think they understood what the Door of No Return even was?

Herbert: I feel it can be explained to them, but because they’re Europeans, I don’t think they could understand their—should I use the term positionality? Their people didn’t go out that door. Our people did. There’s only so much you can understand from a culture that’s not yours. I can never understand the genocide of native people—I could understand it, but I will never be able to feel what they felt, because that’s a completely different genocide. I can’t feel that loss of culture. So I think the slave castle was a space for them to be like, “Oh I visited that and it sucked,” and then you keep going on with your life. But it doesn’t really bother them.

Greening: I don’t even know if it was like, “It sucked.” It was more like, “It was interesting.” Do you remember when our guide was explaining the significance of the courtyard? There was this well, and some cells, and then there was a cannonball that was used, essentially, for torture—humiliation of different captured African women. They would chain them up to this cannonball and make them stand. And this woman comes by with this giant iPad and just walks through the middle of our group, and then just—click, click, click—and then walks away. For me it felt like her reaction was, “Oh, this is very interesting. I know so much more now.” In my head I imagined her talking to her other white middle-aged friends and saying, “Oh, look at these photos. Oh yeah, this is a cannonball right here.”

Herbert: It was just an object to her.

Bouligny: There was a lot of senselessness in the castle. That’s just the best way to say it. There were a lot of senseless people just walking through, just breezing through. It’s just another museum to them.

Daniel Espinoza ’22, double majoring in international political economy and sociology and anthropology, and double minoring in Asian studies and Chinese

Hess-Fletcher: I think there’s also this tone of, for the Europeans and even the Ghanaians, not being able to see how it still matters, especially for us African Americans, who today are still suffering from institutionalized oppression and all these systems that are still in place here. It’s just history to them now. They don’t see the relevance today. Maybe they get sad, but they’re like, “OK, this is the past. We’re not doing it anymore, so we’re good.”

Herbert: It’s interesting that you say that, because I guess I didn’t realize how much Ghanaians are disconnected from the slave trade. One of our local guides told us that a lot of Ghanaians don’t know a lot about what happened in the Americas, or they may have an idea but it’s not really talked about. They are not the outcome of a slave trade, if that makes sense. The castle is more like a tourist place to them, a historical place where it’s, “Oh, we can learn about what happened.” But it doesn’t affect them.

Walimaki: Our guide, Kwame, was explaining it to me. A student asked him, “Why? How can Ghanaians walk through and take selfies in this space?” Even taking photos felt inappropriate sometimes, just because it was a very vulnerable space. It felt uncomfortable. And Kwame said that for Ghanaians, this time period was a population loss—they lost some people, the way you do in a war—and then their country kept going. That really made me think about how, in AFAM studies, we learned that blackness in the United States is descended from this horrible thing that happened, one of the worst crimes in humanity’s history. But from the African perspective, it was like, “Oh, that was a really hard time for Ghana because we lost so many people, but we bounced back.” Ghanaians wouldn’t be descended from people who endured that kind of experience.

Seeing the castle actually gave me a very clear parallel with U.S. society, in terms of hierarchy. The construction of the dungeons, with no air ventilation, no effective drainage system—versus the governors and the higher-ups who were inhabiting the rest of the castle. They had wooden floors and 12 windows in their rooms, and it was scenic and overlooked the ocean. I saw how that would translate into the construction of the U.S. society, in terms of social hierarchies manifested in architecture. I read a book on social justice and architecture, so that was on my mind on that trip. But I also realized, as a white person entering that space, white people were responsible for that. And it’s on us to do whatever we can to prevent that from perpetuating further. There was a sign inside the castle—basically, the last line was “and we the living, it’s up to us to make sure that the events that occurred here never repeat again.” That really stuck with me in terms of having the privilege to go on this trip, having the privilege to be in higher education and learn of this history, then to see it in person, and then thinking how to move forward with that awareness.

I didn’t feel like a minority in Ghana. I didn’t feel like I was any different from anyone else.”

– Jade Herbert ’21, double majoring in psychology and African American studies

Grace, I’m curious for your perspective, being a non-black person of color at the slave castle, having an understanding of what this place is, but also looking at the white visitors in the space just being disrespectful.

Eberhardt: We did have some disruptive people come into the Door of No Return. That was incredibly frustrating—they were just laughing and had their flashlights on and were like, “Oh, so sorry, I didn’t know you guys were here.” Also, the non-black POC [persons of color] group toured with the white group, and we agreed to have the non-black POC group go ahead—and it kind of felt like the white students didn’t know how to not to be in the front. And I also felt weird being in the front of the space.

Gudgell: I obviously messed up a lot on the trip, and I don’t want to separate myself from the other white students, because we’re all a part of this and we all were having to be very aware of physically where we were—the space we were in and the positions that we occupy there—in a way that we’ve never had to be aware of before. With that, I think part of the frustration for me was that some of the other white students would go up ahead, even in front of the non-black POC sometimes, even after we had talked multiple times about how we were going to try to do it. A big theme of the trip was individualism versus collectivism, and Dr. Brackett had a meeting with the white students at one point and she said, “I’m noticing now that you all may have grown up in a very individualistic way, because that’s a very Western value, and that’s really impacting your peers and the staff members on this trip.”

Mara Henderson ’20, double majoring in African American studies and environmental policy and decision making, and minoring in Spanish
I also want to know about the experience at the slave river [the Assin-Manso River, where slaves took their last bath before arriving at the slave castles]. What happened there?

Bouligny: They had us [the black affinity group] take our shoes off before we walked on the trail that took us to the river. The idea was so that our ancestors could feel our feet and we could feel what they felt walking that same trail. We made ourselves human chains and held onto each other’s backs or shoulders and walked the same way that enslaved Africans were walking. And then in groups of three or four we actually got in the water, shin deep. Being in the water, there was something completely different about it. It was a lot more to think about—there were times where we could spread out and just sit and hang out and think about the things that happened there, and it was sad, because it was such a beautiful day. I think because it was so interactive it weighed a lot heavier than the castles did.

Greening: I really realized that there’s so much more to all of this than I can visualize or understand. The slave trade was just so much bigger than what we think it is. Also the fact that many of them didn’t even make it to the slave castles—many of them died or drowned in the rivers. So many more people were taken than the actual amount of people who made it to the Americas. Every step of the way death was just there, present. I had never really understood that fully.

Hess-Fletcher: For me, the engagement of the body and the walking on the soil and holding onto each other to imitate the chains—it was all very spiritual for me. I think when I got in the water, I felt this stillness, and I think a few tears fell. I just felt connected to the space and the land. I was thinking what they must have been thinking, how much anxiety and fear and strength they were channeling to be resilient and to keep going. Watching people around them die.

OK, so I’m going to change gears again. I want you all to give me just one moment of joy. One moment where you thought, OK, this is why I came.

Walimaki: At Glefe [headquarters for Glefe Youth Ghana, a nonprofit organization where the students completed a day of service], I was doing photography for the majority of the day. It was hot, and I was thirsty, and there was paint in my eyes. And a group of people on the trip just got up and started dancing and singing. People were painting still, people were sanding, people were herding kids around. It was just absolute chaos, and there was just this joyous moment of people just letting it out. Oh, my God, I was just—I was in tears. I think that was the biggest moment for me, where everyone was just so proud of the work that they’d been doing all day. People worked hard, and then everyone just took a moment to just let it go.

Greening: All the black students got dinner a few times together, and it was just nice after doing the heavy lifting of decompressing and reflecting. At one point we just sitting around joking with each other. I feel like when I was around other white students, I had to intellectualize so much. I don’t know—because we are all academics in this space. But it was nice to be around black students or the other POC students on the trip and just laugh and feel joyous by the beach. Really enjoy each other’s company.

Bouligny: One of the peak things we did was going to Kakum National Park. Some of us were just stopping and taking pictures. That day we just took the time to enjoy each other and the surroundings, being on the hanging bridges up in the trees. Obviously, that was a day where you need to be around people you trusted—for me at least, because I was getting kind of nervous because we were shaking the bridges. But it was a lot of fun doing something that didn’t need a lot of emotion—just letting go and being there. Just really existing in that moment was really great for me.

Eberhardt: At the art village place, we met someone who had their own drums studio, so we went and got private drum lessons. I come from a music background, so I was really focused and trying to copy [them]—it was really fun to do something like that across cultures. We were laughing and it was just super fun.

Hess-Fletcher: The musical aspects were so impactful for me, as well. On our first full day there, we learned how to play the talking drum and we learned some dancing, and it was really fun. I felt like I really got out of my comfort zone and it set the tone for the trip a little bit. At the end of the trip, I did karaoke—I really got out of my comfort zone for that. It was really impactful on me and the way I see myself, not being afraid to take up a little more space.

Herbert: The church we went to was really a memorable moment, because not everyone is religious but everybody still put aside their beliefs, and a lot of us got up there and danced. And they prayed over us, which was out of some people’s comfort zones. But it’s the church. That’s what they do. It was really nice to be a part of their Christian type of churches, because it’s so different from what we have, yet also very similar.

Eberhardt: I was one of the first people to be invited up there, and I was dancing with this older woman, and it was so fun. And to dance in a space where you’re not sexualized was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. Just to not be picking apart my body.  

Hess-Fletcher: Definitely agree with that. You’re just allowed to have bodies. It doesn’t matter. That was a really nice experience throughout the trip.

Herbert: To have the bumps and the curves and not be looked at differently—because everyone had bumps and curves. Or there were the people who were thin, and it was fine. Nobody was overly hyper-sexualized.

Sarah Nickle ’20, majoring in sociology and anthropology
Now, having been through all of these experiences, how has this trip changed you? Do you feel different in any way?

Hess-Fletcher: When we first came back, despite being exhausted, I had all this energy and motivation and I was really looking for something to get into. I felt inspired or awoken, I felt more confident and driven, and I was really eager to bring that back home. And I will say that Jade and I have applied to go back to Ghana in the fall. I would have never had the confidence to do that if it wasn’t for this trip with Dr. Brackett.

Herbert: I think I believe in my existence and being a black woman now. I believed it before, but now I’m just like, “You are who you are. There’s a whole continent of people who look like you. You’re valid. You just happen to be in the wrong country at the moment and you can’t do anything about it.” [laughter] It just really validated my existence and changed the way I look at certain aspects of my life.

Greening: I feel like I engage with African-ness more, and I’m very curious about the African diaspora now. The Western media wants black people to believe that they’re alone in the world: No one looks like you, no one acts like you. And to a certain extent the experiences of African Americans are unique, very not like any other experiences in the world. But there is a long legacy of African Americans living outside the U.S. and feeling closer to their blackness, engaging with the entire world. At the same time, I have realized that it doesn’t matter how woke you are or what your major is—it is still a lifelong process to ask yourself, Why? Why do I do these things? Why do I think this way? I’ve learned so much from experiencing that, from observing that in a black majority country.

Bouligny: After seeing Ghanaians working hard in the conditions that they’re living in, everything they’re doing with the limited resources, I feel like I’m more purposeful—because I know that they’re working very hard to survive, and I have all these resources to help me. I’m more driven to reach my goals, and then I want to be able to help people who have those limitations and can only go so far. I think that’s based on everything that we did at Glefe Youth Ghana—I was super into everything that we were doing there.

Eberhardt: I’ve always kind of struggled with my racial identity. Coming back from the trip, I felt validated by my experiences in Ghana, how they are similar to my experiences in the U.S., and I’m just accepting the fact that people are going to perceive me different and I can’t control how people perceive me, whether they perceive me as white or they perceive me as Latina. I can’t control that. So I feel like I came to accept that. I understand that it’s going to be a lifelong process, but it really did help me so much, and I never really expected that to happen.

Walimaki: I am really grateful that I had this opportunity. I never thought that I would make it to college, much less study abroad. So that was amazing. And this trip taught me a lot about what it means to be a part of the community and to support your community. I’d never really experienced such a strong group before. Ever. And I think part of that is Dr. Brackett’s meticulous planning, her leadership on this team, and her demonstration of taking care of the group, but also her showing us when she needed to take a step back and take care of herself too. And this group was really special, and for the first time I felt like I had that experience of being part of the collective. That was really amazing, and I think I’ll move forward with that value, with that at the forefront of my mind.

I did want to ask one question of you, Erica. How has this trip impacted you understanding both your queerness and your blackness and how those two worlds meet?

Greening: I think queerness is something that people are still reckoning with in a post-colonial world. I definitely navigated Ghana as, “I understand that I’m a queer person, but right now for my own interest, I think it’s best that I keep that more to myself and people I trust with that information.” I got some impressions from folks, specifically our guide Kwame, that that awareness of queerness is starting to come up more and it’s not necessarily punished in the ways that it was before, but he still made it clear to us, whether he meant to or not, that it’s still a social taboo. I definitely realize that, if I were to go back to Ghana, I would still have to navigate that piece of myself and that I would not feel very complete in Ghana. However, I’m still pretty young and Ghana is still a very young country and there’s so much potential in Ghana for change. So I hope to go back in the future and see that change.

So, thinking through all of this again, would you do it over?

Herbert: Yes. Yes. A thousand times. Even with the same people, the same stuff that happened over and over and over again.

Bouligny: Same drama. Same sicknesses.

Walimaki: Same mangoes. [laughter]

Greening: Same waiting two hours for food at a restaurant.

Herbert: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I feel like anyone, especially if you are black or POC who is not black, you should go to Ghana.

Greening: I think it’s unlike any opportunity available for students on this campus. I’ve never heard of this many students of color going on a study abroad trip, led by a black woman, ever before. And we all learned so much about the way power operates within all of us, and the way that power operates between individuals. And just seeing black people living and thriving is so unlike anything else that you could see in the United States.

Walimaki: From my positionality as a white student, it’s important to have an experience where, for whatever the context is—five minutes, three weeks, whatever—you learn to work on not expecting to be the center, not expecting to be the norm, not expecting to be the loudest voice in the room.

Herbert: I would tell African American students that it is essential to your identity and the way that you’ll see yourself, and the way you’ll see others and your importance outside the U.S. and inside the U.S. You’ll come out a completely different person as an African American, and you’ll see your value across countries.

Bouligny: I would say for black students, there’s never going to be another study abroad that will be targeted and affect you the way this one is, and I think that it’s something that should be taken advantage of. Especially if you don’t have the means to do it and this is your one and only chance, take that chance. Even if you have never thought about going abroad, do it anyway, because it’s going to do something to you—whether you’re going in thinking it will or thinking it won’t.

Hess-Fletcher: It was a very freeing experience to be able to just exist, in a sense. And I feel like each one of us took something different home—for ourselves, for our education, for our communities, for our families.


Photos by Sy Bean
Published May 25, 2020