The GoGlobal Blog

Tag: Accra

The End

The End

The last time I lived in a building with communal bathrooms and kitchen was my first year at Loyola. I hated it then. I wanted my own space and privacy and I wanted to be able to hide from people I didn’t want to talk to. I knew I would never choose to live in a communal hall like that, but I also didn’t think I’d ever happen to live in one again.

Living communally, however, has been the backbone of my small time in Ghana. It’s made me question why Americans are so bent over backwards about maintaining their privacy, about keeping private spaces walled off from public spaces.

On my first night here, I spent about an hour playing games with the other USAC students who all gathered in the room that would become mine. From the very beginning, I realized that the spaces I occupy here would become shared spaces. Even the things I own here have been shared freely or borrowed indefinitely. I’m an introvert but I’ve become used to never being alone here in Ghana.

On my last night here, I was alone in my room as I packed my things to return home. The rest of the students in my program had left. It struck me that I was the last of us to arrive here, and I was the last one to leave. Now, that loneliness is breaking my heart. I’ll never again walk some few doors down and ask Laura to use her electric kettle, or walk further down the hall and ask Sharne to file my nails; Gerry isn’t here to lend me money for water, Chase isn’t here to open her door for me when I ask her to make me dinner. This community of international students has, in my opinion, become the most essential part to my well-being in Ghana.

Some of the USAC students (not including me) at the wedding of our resident director.

Beyond the doors of the hostel, a similar sense of community is laced in the air that I breathe. Vendors at the Night Market cooperate with little competition. Students preparing for finals share notes and ideas that will help them write their exam. If I don’t know where I’m going or where to find something, I’ll receive help from the first person I ask. Friends are easily made and kept. Everyone is my sister and my brother. And I became a part of these communities from the moment I stepped off the plane in January.

I’m keeping this post short because writing it is making me tear up. I am and will always be infinitely grateful for those I’ve met here who made me see the value of a life lived communally. My heart aches at the distance that will soon separate us. I want Chicago to be closer to Reno and Columbia, Las Cruces and Boston, DC and wherever the hell Sharne lives just so I can get on a train and be at your door. You all helped me become part of a home here, a home in which I feel protected and uplifted and uninhibited – a home whose dynamic would have collapsed as soon as any of acted selfishly.

To my two aunties and the USAC student staff who helped me learn the ropes of life in Ghana, thank you for being patient and kind with a clueless international student like myself. To the countless University of Ghana students who I met and talked with, thank you for answering my questions and letting me enjoy your beautiful country. To my UG professors, some of whom frustrated me, thank you for teaching me about Africa from an African perspective.

Laken and me at our Aunty Abigail’s traditional wedding. Her dress for the ceremony is made of Ghanaian woven fabric called kente.

I will keep all of you in my heart always. You’ve made coming to Ghana the best decision I’ve ever made for myself.

Bi Nka Bi – No One Should Bite the Other

Bi Nka Bi – No One Should Bite the Other

At the edge of campus on the Wednesday before Easter, Phil, Elly, and I climbed into an SUV in our Sunday best. We were on our way to the wedding of someone named Ethan from Florida – someone none of us knew.

The driver of the SUV was a young woman named Selly. She wore her natural hair and was dressed in a white lace dress that starkly contrasted her smooth, dark skin. Her mother was in the passenger seat, also dressed in white. She plugged her iPhone into the center console and played Ghanaian pop music as we drove off campus. As we introduced ourselves from the backseat, I was struck by her sudden comfort with us, three young white people whom she’d never met. I grew to be equally comfortable with her on the short ride to the venue.

The event was a traditional Ghanaian engagement and marriage ceremony. It involves the groom-to-be and his family presenting gifts of food, drink, and cash to the family of the bride-to-be. Today, the groom was not Ghanaian, and neither was his family, but he still was presenting gifts in exchange for the bride’s hand. But his family remained in Florida – so who would be able to participate in the wedding?

TL;DR, it was his sisters Elly and Anna, and his brother Phil.

Family pic. LtR: Elly, George, Georgina, Ethan, me, Phil.

The long version is that the bride, Georgina, was friends with Selly, the woman who picked us up at campus, and Selly used to work in UG’s International Programming Offices, where USAC’s current resident director Abigail is stationed. Selly petitioned Abigail on behalf of Georgina for Abigail to send some American students to act as a surrogate family for the groom. Otherwise, Ethan would have no family who could present the wedding gifts. Got it? Ethan -> Georgina -> Selly -> Abigail -> Anna -> Elly, Phil.

Doesn’t matter. On the Wednesday before Easter, Anna, Elly, and Phil were adopted family members for Ethan from Florida.

Technicalities of the ceremony requirements aside, I ask you, dear reader, to imagine being in Ethan’s position. How would you feel coming to Ghana for the first time to get married? Would you invite strangers to be in your wedding party? Would you ask a stranger to become your sister, knowing that you might never meet again?

Akosua, sister of the bride, and her partner at the drinks table.

The ceremony was lively and loud and beautiful. The bride, Georgina, was dressed in a two-piece dress woven of multicolored kente, with jewelry around her neck and adorning her hair, and she was holding a fan made of white feathers. She took my breath away, and I bet Ethan felt similarly. We were invited to sing, dance, shake the hands of Georgina’s family, take photos with cousins and sisters, invited to a feast fit for royalty. And the event wasn’t in a banquet center or a huge garden – it was in Georgina’s family home.

Now, can you put yourself in this position? Your daughter is getting married to an American man whose ways of life are vastly different from your own. He isn’t familiar in the Akan marriage tradition, and yet he still wants to participate in one. What does it take for you to open your home to him and his (albeit, fake) family? To offer them food, welcome them into your home, dance and sing with them, add photos with them to the wedding album that you will show your future grandchildren?

Tables set up under a marquee in the yard of the family house.

Phil, Elly, and I decided to leave the festivities just as the heat of the sun was becoming weak, around 4pm. I was full of fufu and jollof and sobolo with a huge smile on my face, and the three of us joked about the more bizarre aspects of the day as we waited by the house gate for Selly to come out.

She drove us to ISH and the drive back felt a lot longer than the drive there. As we left the car, I said yɛbɛhyia – see you later. Literally, it means “we will meet again.”


Alone in my room, I sat in thought and wonder at the hospitality of everyone I’d encountered that day. The whole day had felt surreal, but comfortable. As Selly got to know me in her car, I felt appreciated. When Ethan asked me to fill the role of his sister, I felt honored. When Georgina’s family opened their doors to me, I felt accepted. I’d suddenly felt at home with this family I didn’t know and the family I’d just become a part of. What new kind of hospitality was this? There were no presuppositions, no judgments, no uncomfortable gazes – they welcomed me as if they had always known me as an intimate friend. Even the language of the Akan is welcoming: everyone greets you with akwaaba – you are welcome here; saying thank you, medaase, literally means “I lay at your feet;” yɛbɛhyia – we will meet again.

Can you put yourself in my position?

I navigate my small part of Accra with the language of laying yourself at a stranger’s feet, ensuring them you will always meet again. I cram myself in the back of a trotro with a stranger pressing their arm up against me. Strangers ask me where I’m from, asking me for my phone number so they can get to know me. Sometimes, men ask if I will marry them as I’m waiting in line to get lunch.

What do you do when socialization requires a level of intimacy with strangers that you’re not familiar with? When the friend of a friend of a friend asks you to pretend to be someone’s sister? When suddenly your understanding of personal space is inconsequential?

I am endlessly grateful that I am able to be here in Accra, but I think I am more grateful to those I’ve met along the way, whose attitudes of intimacy and hospitality have sometimes been challenging. I didn’t come here to be comfortable, so I don’t resist these challenges. Was Selly comfortable putting three American kids in her car to take them across town? Did Ethan get married in Ghana without his family present because it was more comfortable? Was it comfortable for Georgina and her family to open their home to American strangers? Maybe, maybe not. But what rises above insistence on personal boundaries and comfort is extending welcoming to strangers.

It might be hard for you to put yourself in my position. If it is, I challenge you to look more closely at Africans, at Ghanaians, at the city of Accra. They might be strangers to you, but they don’t bite. You are welcome here.

The newlyweds dancing after the ceremony.



Comprehensive and Universal

Comprehensive and Universal

cath·o·lic \ˈkath-lik , ˈka-thə-lik\ adj 2: comprehensive, universal; especially: broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests

Homesickness is much different than I anticipated. I’ve experienced longing, obviously, whether for a place or a person, and I know what that feels like. But being in Accra for four months is a little different than spending a couple weeks away from family in the states. Vast space and time are between me and the rest of my familiar world, and sometimes it hurts my heart. These are manageable feelings, and I know they are neither unique to me nor profound. They are just things people feel when they study abroad, and they are things that come and go.

What helps, though, is to catch glimpses of the universality of life on this huge planet.

Sunday the 25th of February, I went to Catholic mass for what was the first time in a month. Circumstances and laziness had kept me from going during my first four weeks in Accra, but that Sunday was a fortuitous one.

I’ve got fourteen and a half good good years of Catholic education under my belt, and I know what a Catholic mass feels like. It’s catholic – universal. It’s said in the vernacular (which, here, is fortunately my first language), all the prayers are the same, and it follows a playbook that saves me from having to really make any decisions during the service. During mass, whether or not I’m feeling particularly faithful that day, I feel comfortable. I feel connected to myself and those around me. And then after the hour, I feel peaceful and calm.

At home, I go to mass because it’s part of my routine and part of my extracurricular commitment. I participate in the ritual because it brings me these feelings of peace that, I believe, bring me closer to God. I also know that I have friends, even a second family, in my faith-based communities in Chicago and Ohio.

But here, I went to mass on Sunday the 25th because I needed something that felt familiar.

I have weird moments here where I feel turbulent, unsettled, and alien, when I know that I should instead be feeling like I belong. The week before the 25th was peppered with many of these moments, and I was desparately in need of an anchor. I knew there was a St. Thomas Aquinas Church on campus, a forty-minute walk from my hostel. I knew they had two mass times on Sunday mornings, so I decided to go to the second one at 9am.

The worship space was semi-circular, with rows of pews surrounding the altar on three sides. One side was occupied by the choir and a small podium for the choir director to stand on. Facing the altar, there were two projection screens displaying the lyrics to the hymns for the service, as there were no missals provided for the congregation in the pews.

A badly taken photo of the worship space from the choir loft.

Genuflecting, I took a seat in the center section near the back as the procession was beginning. All at once, with the incense to my left, the choir to my right, and the altar displaying a Chi Rho before me, I felt exactly as peaceful as I needed to be. I don’t think it was my faith which brought me to this calmness, because I can practice my faith anywhere. And it wasn’t necessarily the environment of the relatively humble worship space that impacted me.

Instead, I think I experienced contentment because I was experiencing something familiar. Something universal. Something catholic.

Since Sunday the 25th, I’ve been searching for these universal experiences from which to draw serenity. I’ve found them in teenagers who walk home from school in groups of two and three, gossiping among themselves; in street vendors and bartenders who get my attention when I forget my change; in the way the earth smells after a light rain. This week I ended up in the hospital with a fever, and the nurse taking a blood sample from me asked how school was going so I wouldn’t feel nervous. The other day I tripped over the sidewalk in a place where the cobblestones had been upset by a growing tree root. Once I saw a toddler take a faceplant in the dirt before promptly getting up and continuing to run along with her older siblings.

When I take a beat to slow down and reflect on what I’m feeling, I recognize these catholic moments. A moment that doesn’t necessarily remind me of anything or anywhere, because I don’t think that would help my homesickness. Rather I cherish moments that could happen anywhere, and in these I feel peace.

I really am trying to make myself feel like I can be a part of this place, to truly be where my feet are. Sometimes it feels hard when I know I’m not staying for a very long time, but I’m trying nonetheless. How do I balance a mindful effort to be present at this university with genuine feelings of longing for the family, friends, and places that are familiar?

Truthfully, I’m unsure. And I’d love for any tips and tricks.

But I bet if I spend enough time pursuing these moments of universality, seeking the catholic facets of my world, and leaning in to my Catholic faith, I just might find some answers.

Ad majorem dei gloriam,