A West African Summer in 499 Words

By Christopher Wink | August 29, 2005 | Travel Reflection

Africa was not real to me.  It was imaginary; I saw a place where elephants roam and people starve.  I saw children with flies around their faces in villages and huts and tribes.  I saw in stereotypes and misunderstandings and prejudices and lies.  That was all before I arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana.

I gave two months of my teenage life to West Africa, and I was given in return a lifetime of awareness and understanding.  I studied in a classroom at the University of Ghana, but Ayi Kwei Armah and Abu Abarry didn’t teach me nearly as much as the cab rides and post offices and market women did.  Reading about West African culture in my overpriced course packet never satisfied my hunger as well as freshly pounded banku and groundnut soup did.  I played basketball with Octung and Salam to hear them speak in proverbs.  I laughed with Tonko and met too many Kwesis to remember.

I visited traditional villages: the kente cloth of Bonwire and the dancing of Nkwantanan.  I can still feel the sweaty, waxy palms of children greeting me with any English they could muster.  Familiarity is immediate.  A first name and a U.S. city is all it takes for a Ghanaian child to devote his life to you.  I still sometimes find in my pockets scraps of paper with addresses and names that I can no longer connect with faces.

I bought too much fruit from young girls on the street, and in return they laughed too much at my clumsy attempts to juggle oranges.  I was an “obrunei” trying to speak Twi, debating on whether I would ever wear a dashiki, yet more than a few times my eyes opened wide as I was certain I was seeing someone I knew from Philadelphia.  West Africa is most certainly as different as a continent can be, but its inhabitants show cultural and personal similarities to so many I’ve known for years in ways they may never know.  Africa is not beneath America; it is merely as far removed laterally as possible.

No elephants roam in Ghana, and I may have met as many Ghanaian architects and engineers as starving Africans.  Villages reflected more on traditional lifestyles than poverty, and I learned that one says “tradition,” not tribe.  I went to Africa ignorant and stupid; I leave less ignorant and a little less stupid.

As it has become my custom after long trips, I write my thoughts here, seven miles from the ground without even a passing fear of falling.  Somehow the decompressed cabin air and meagerly reclining Economy class seats help me to comprehend my time away.  What I have learned here is that one needs not to be brilliant to say something of importance, only the experience to form the words.  Africa now is real to me; it has a feel, a taste.  I can hear Africa, touch it, I can see Africa, as I never have before.

Text as it was written in late August 2005, on returning from a summer in West Africa. This piece won first place in Temple University’s 2005 Travel Essay Contest.