How My First Trip To Africa Changed My Life
The homecoming experience I needed.
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I’m the son of immigrant parents, hailing from the sunny island of Jamaica. I had a decent education coming up. American history was a part of my course load, so of course – accounts of slavery, discrimination and its global effect were some of the necessary topics often covered. I’m well aware that America ain’t shit. But the closer I inched towards college; the more sprinkles of ancestral truth started to show itself in my course curriculum. Those classes emphasized the pain, a lot of pain.
Despite pain, my upbringing reinforced a few things. In some shape or form, I have African roots, and those genes stitched together a first-class two-step. Reggae music was audio-medicinal liberation on a Sunday morning. Our family gatherings brought subwoofers and good food to a 700 sq. ft backyard and my culture, the only one I knew at the time, was authentic and I’ve always been content with that.
Fast forward to August 2018, I was a few months away from my first trip to Africa and I didn’t know shit about my roots in Africa. I was going in blind, with no idea of what to expect even on a base level. With no real personal experiences to lean on and Instagram hashtags (#Accra, #Nairobi, #CapeTown) that only seem to tell half the story, there I was, writing a 13-day itinerary for 40 other Black millennials, who would also be away from their loved ones during Christmas and the New Year.
So as a precursor to my trip to Ghana in December, I sought to find out more about my family history and locate where exactly in Africa my family came from. I felt like I needed to get hip, and fast. So, I polled a few people about ancestry tests, and I decided that I would pay the fees in exchange for some answers. I was close to shipping my DNA off to some random lab right before my 24-hour Instagram poll asking whether or not I should go through with it expired. A friend of mine hit me on the side in the 23rd hour, in the sternest iMessage “You don’t need it bro. You’re home no matter where you go in Africa.” I thought the message was fake deep, truth be told. But as I recollect what I experienced in my first return home to Africa, his words proved to be more factual than I could have imagined.
Africa was a momentous experience that came at a moment in life when I felt a peak of self-awareness to the people and connections around me. Ghana was a reward to me. A way to say “you earned it” after a successful year of habit building and self-reconstruction. I went to Africa to celebrate the holidays and close out my year on a high note, but I left with much more than I asked for.
During my visit to the continent, I felt at peace, with the land but even more with the people. The people of Ghana greeted and welcomed me as family. My first embrace was with the hotel shuttle driver. It’s 3:30 am as we loaded the group’s suitcases into the sprinter and my first conversation started with the words “welcome home, my brother.” A quaint high note that would quickly become a theme for the entire trip. Every greeting was “son,” “brother,” or “friend.” Now, genetic family love is one thing, but this familial affection came from complete strangers. Hailing from New York, this kind of love from strangers is uncommon, but I quickly started to feel the people become less than strangers and more like distant relatives who didn’t care what kept me away for so long, because they only cared that I had finally found my way home.
To set the tone of the trip, I visited Cape Coast Castle, one of the oldest slave bases in Western Africa set right on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I toured the dungeons of Cape Coast and ran my hands across the very walls where African men and women were held captive 400 years ago. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, slaves were forced through what is known as “the door of no return,” placed onto ships and sent across the Atlantic. Slavery felt too far removed to seem real when I was introduced to it as a child, but being present, in that moment, made it hit home for me.
The 2-hour tour was heavy. I remember pausing and staring out into the water to process what I'd just experienced and heard about the countless number of slaves that have been kidnapped and sold from Ghana to places like North & South Carolina, New York, Atlanta, Jamaica, and Brazil. Still staring, the waves slapping at the base of the castle, I felt like the sea was angry. It was either the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of slaves or the transit line that ripped families, bloodlines & generations apart. I was angry too, because I realized that there is no way to remove such a blotch from our history. Listening to the tour guide was deafening, but it’s the emotions of trying to visualize his words and feel what they felt briefly took me to a very dark place. The piece of hope that our group of 40+ left with, was when we walked through “the door of no return” from the other side – "the door of return." Our first ritual of the trip. Walking into the castle through the same doors that our ancestors walked out of was our homecoming moment. An indescribable, connective feeling. On day 1, I had a whole new understanding of my history that textbooks could never teach.
I did a bit of necessary unlearning during my trip. Ghana repositioned my understanding of my place and worth in the world, it was like a missing spoke to a wheel that never quite turned right. I finally felt like I began connecting the dots and finding words to describe the things I’ve always felt but had never been able to eloquently pen. I’ve come to understand where I stand in the eyes of America. For the majority of the world, you are treated differently because you are Black, but Ghana was different. I was treated like a true citizen, and the only stamp of approval I needed was the most identifiable quality, that brown skin baby. That was a complete 180-degree experience for me. A country where the love for your kind is embedded in the people you see. I’m only unlucky for not experiencing this sooner.
Spending 8 days in Ghana, I realized how excessively tolerant I’ve been to mistreatment in the states. Stepping outside of that infrastructure shifts your perspective and transformed how I now see the world and its possibilities for me, my family, my people. Not a single day went by where I consciously felt “Black” or needed to be reminded that being Black was historically associated with unfavorable treatment. The way I experienced Ghana was without psychological division within the diaspora, no hyphenated buzz words before or after “African” or “Black,” that only drove separation amongst people. Burna Boy said in an interview that Ghana was the only place he felt peace, because when he looks out into the waters and sees the horizon where the sea ends and the sun meets, he feels as if “God lives there." A poetic opinion, drawn from feelings and emotions I now share. Ghana gave me peace and put my mind at ease.
Ghana had a delicate balance to its nature, so where peace exists, noise is also close by. The noise represents the fun we had in Ghana, and we sure gave our social media timeline a reason to feel like they missed what I call a “pioneer-like celebrity experience”. When I think about the desirable, bucket list experiences I’m privy to, Africa was probably the furthest away from that list. I like to party – it’s the happy medium to the hustle and bustle of a 9-5er that likes to celebrate small wins with the occasional bottle service to new music and close friends. To say the least, I was shocked by the magnitude of the festivities Ghana exposed me too. I remember standing in my all white garb, glass raised for a toast, at the Little Acre hotel in Aburi, thousands joined, thinking – where did all these Black people come from? Ghana, the party capital of the world, pushed my festive limits to its ends every day/night. I found a new vibe every night, with no sacrifice to culture and most importantly, music. From the luxe feeling of Sandbox Beach Club, the intimate feel in Twist night club, the illuminated, lively BloomBar to the view at the top of Sun City Accra and last but not least, the best concert experience that is Afrochella, live from El-Wak Stadium. My social palette of party experiences was exceeded on a nightly basis. As my sleep habits quickly faded, I thought about the subtle barriers to Ghana, including the price to get there, my own ignorance, fearing I would lose simple luxuries like electricity and water for a few days but the most interesting of them all were health scares.
Looking back on the process to be cleared to enter Africa, I see how it could easily discourage someone from ever going. Ghana is a yellow fever and malaria zone, so precautions for these two illnesses are necessary but it’s the multi-page documents of health risk concerns and potential $1,000+ bill from the suggested vaccinations that makes the doubt really settle in. It suggests that Africa is unclean, unsanitary and forces you to evaluate the risk of going. I felt like I was back in history class again, learning about the pain and the perceived unattractive nature of the continent. Despite all the over-emphasis on health consulting and excess vaccination recommendations, I hugged and embraced more strangers there than I would have imagined. I ate with them, spoke with them, laughed with them and shared stories with them.
A special part of my visit involved meeting the youths of Ghana, the true purveyors of the genuine spirit of the people. Growing up, my parents always told me there were kids in the world who were less fortunate than me. Here I was, a kid from the hood, wondering who could be any less fortunate – well, it finally hit home, 27 years later. Walking through the city or any tour sites for that matter, the young kids gathered in multitudes. They made me feel most welcomed because like a little brother or sister they wanted to talk to the “Americans” of the family, as if they were trying to dispel stereotypes just like we were.
A few showed off dance moves or sang a few verses from a popular song for some spare change. Nonetheless, there was no intimidation, no violence, but out of their need, they looked to us for generous donations of simple things that can easily be taken for granted, like a hat to keep the sun out of their eyes or shoes to wear so they wouldn’t have to walk barefoot every day. All in all, not a single child begged me for money, they approached me like young businessmen and women, offering something in return for their service and I supported. I paid for bracelets, charms, chains and fresh fruit that they made presentable and appealing enough for anyone to buy. As a parting gift, Joseph, one of the youths I met during the trip, made a custom embroidered wristband for me. After paying for my gift, he gave me something extra with my name on it and said “always remember your little brother” as he ran off to find another customer. My little brothers and sisters, hustling to eat, reminded me to be grateful for everything I own and the things that I subconsciously take for granted.
Ghana, a nation of people black owned and operated. Seeing black business as the norm made me realize how much we [black America] over-index on black business. It stands out as such an anomaly because of how special it is to be Black and have ownership where we live. We have to reinforce supporting our own, but In Ghana, I supported my own everywhere. There is no such thing as black business, it’s just business. There is infrastructure, architectural design, technology, economy, government and laws. All necessary things for a nation to operate independently. There is sophistication, order, and efficiency in the systems ran by the people. The idea of black as the thriving and functioning majority is more than possible, Ghana proved that.
As I re-entered NYC airspace on my return flight, I felt blessed with newfound responsibility having experienced the motherland. I feel indebted as a son, a friend, a brother and one day, a father to wield my talents and my truth as a calling to do great things that properly represent the happy, resilient and loving people of Africa. I think this feeling of ancestral belonging is what feeds pride and creates purpose. It might’ve been what I was missing in my wheel of understanding that I can now go back and share, and I didn’t need to give up a cheek swab and pay shipping fees to do it.
My hope is that every Black person has their own Africa experience at some point in life. I hope they feel the peace I did, and I hope that peace [re]defines a new meaning to life and to their purpose.