Standing outside of my African Philosophy class waiting for my professor to arrive, I saw that one of the (white) students from my program was waiting as well. I felt as though I should go over and talk, as he was the only person among the hundred or so students also waiting that I had ever met before. But I was acutely aware of the possibility that the African students in my class would perceive that I, the African-American, gravitated towards the one white student in the class rather than any one of the hundred plus Africans. Outside of the fact that I was convinced this would be the assumption, the color contrast of the African students, the one white student, and myself (a rather light shade of brown) made me even more aware of the perceived fallacy of my intentions. And such were my thoughts as I walked over despite my discomfort. “What’s up Tony?” I say in an attempt to make conversation. Almost immediately, the limited commonality between us became increasingly apparent and I started to regret my decision to socialize. I was convinced that beyond both growing up on the same continent and both deciding to study in Ghana no other common ground existed.
After a brief segment of small talk, generally about course registration and the dietary adjustments of our stomachs, I decided to take the opportunity to ask Tony what made him decide to come to Africa. His answer had something to do with a friend who had studied here before and related to him the fascinations of nature that existed in Africa., and some random song playing in the background on the discovery channel that intrigued him. Before the story even started it was clear that we were speaking different languages, and that I was not going to be able to answer the reciprocal question. But, as expected, he asked me anyway, “why did you decide to come to Africa?” So I offered an academic justification and felt reasonably pleased at its short and sweet completeness. “I was at Oxford last semester studying the colonization of West Africa from the British perspective and so now I am here getting the African side of the story, completing my research.” I then asked him how it felt to be a minority for the first time in his life. And though I expected a much different answer he said, “A little weird at first, but no big deal really.” Then, before I could probe further or formulate a follow up question in my attempt to gather information, he asked me what it was life for me to be here—implying that he was somewhat aware that a significant difference existed between his reality and my own. It was the first time since I had come to Ghana that anyone else had asked me so directly, and therefore the first time I tried to articulate the answer out loud. In my attempt to explain, after some time of silence, I dug up a hypothetical situation that I figured could most accurately capture my emotions—rather than my thoughts. It seemed like the best I could offer as well as the most appropriate.
Being here for me has been like an adopted child meeting her biological mother for the first time as an adult. I mean, I’m not adopted, but I would imagine that the psychology behind both situations is similar. Given the fact that you knew that the circumstances behind your separation from your mother was no one’s fault, and perhaps that your life was more privileged, economically, as a result. Because then, even if you had spent a lifetime trying to analyze or think through the situation, nothing would be able to prepare you for the way you would feel. Being here is like being seated in the room with the person responsible for your existence and knowing that they don’t recognize you. On one level it makes sense, but the reality of it is heart breaking. To continue using the metaphor, more difficult than this realization would be the first attempt to establish a tangible connection. Especially since you can see your reflection in the face of the person sitting across from you. I found that here, like in England, I have to put my entire life into an accurate context before I can have a real conversation with anyone. And the difference between that being the case here, as opposed to England, is that it feels wrong. Like somewhere inside, my heart believed that my mother would recognize me, because explaining what my life has been like and who I have become seems unnatural when speaking to one’s closest biological connection.
by Jeri Hilt
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