Back in Ghana in the year 2000, I felt most like a “real African woman” when I could fetch water with some degree of ease – meaning when I could carry a bucket of water atop my head from the nearest village, somewhere around a kilometer or a mile away, back to the shack, both without spilling too much of it down my backside and without incurring an absurd amount of stiffness in my neck. This time, in Guinea, I knew that what it would take for me to feel reasonably acculturated here… would actually be to bring myself to throw my trash in the bush. Though I did consider the other alternative – not to leave it behind in my room for my hosts to eventually toss into the bush, but to pack it up with the rest of my belongings and dispose of it perhaps a little more “properly” (in my ingrained Western perception of where trash should reside) back home in the Western world… on my last morning, I finally brought myself to do it – to carry my small plastic bag of odds and ends of trash out in front of the compound and toss it into the bush myself. I suppose, though, the truly acculturated part of that scenario would be not feeling any negativity about doing so…
It was also on this last morning in Guinea that I finally met someone besides Alisco who spoke fluent English – a friend of Mohammed’s (Alisco’s younger nephew, who was probably in his 20’s), who came to visit him during this rare, blissfully quiet morning when everyone else happened to be out. When I eventually joined them on the porch to cut up some fruit, he asked me about my diet, as Mohammed had told him I had mainly just been eating fruit. And as we began to talk quite extensively about health and wellness – mostly about diet (vegetarianism, fruitarianism, breatharianism…), yoga, and Reiki, I was surprised to suddenly find myself having the best conversation I had had the entire time I was in Guinea. Wow, it was so wonderful to actually communicate with someone! Besides Alisco (who had to be away in Conakry half the time), I hadn’t been able to really talk to anyone, or understand anything being talked about, and there had only been a few of the basics of human experience to connect me with anyone whom I had met in Guinea thus far: love (as displayed through care and appreciation for one another), joy (smiles), and rhythm (drumming!). While the men had spent hours sitting in the courtyard talking, I had spent quiet hours in my room, practicing yoga, writing, and reading; I couldn’t share in their food with them, which was always a pretty central social gathering point (though at least they could eat my food, always enjoying the fruit I passed around); and eventually, I had felt so other, so foreign here. At least now, having this conversation, and in the end leaving Mohammed’s friend with a book concerning pranic nourishment that I had brought with to read, I finally felt that I was at least doing something positive in a cross-cultural capacity.
As we were talking, I was struck by the fact that Mohammed’s friend was speaking English with a perfect Ghanaian accent. And when I asked him where he had learned English, sure enough, he told me that he had learned it while studying in Ghana, which was also where he had been exposed to many of the things of which we now spoke. Like another Guinean man with whom I had spoken on my plane ride into the country, who also had been living for a stretch in Ghana, he now told me how much he loved Ghana, loved how “free” he had felt there. “Freedom country,” the man on the plane had called it. They both marveled at how easy it was to do what you wanted in Ghana, to move around without hassle, to relax.
Indeed, by the end of my stay in Guinea, I, too, for my own reasons, was feeling a renewed appreciation for Ghana – far more than I had been feeling by the time I had left it a couple weeks before, when I had felt so ready to explore Guinea (and someday Mali) – and meanwhile leave Ghana behind me. But now that I had this (albeit brief) experience in Guinea with which to compare it, I could see how good it was for me in Ghana: I appreciated how easy it was for me to have some independence there, to feel comfortable, and to connect with the people without much of a language barrier. The type of conversation I was having with Mohammed’s friend, for instance, had been so much easier for me to come by back in Ghana. And I could see that it wasn’t just the English language, either, that made it easier for me to be there, but also the fact that there were simply so many more Westerners there. And this made me see the relatively strong tourism industry in Ghana, which I knew had a great deal to do with this, in a new light. In the past, I had been prone to focus on the more negative aspects of tourism – particularly all the disconcerting ways in which the Western influence tends to change or disrupt non-Western cultures, too often to the point of so many traditions and languages and other key aspects of a culture, or even an entire culture itself, becoming lost. But now I recognized, and was grateful, that the tourism industry has contributed a great deal to setting things up for what I saw as a positive cross-cultural exchange as well. Because in this rapidly changing world, on which the human impact is proving so critical (and in which globalization has already made the Western/capitalist influence fairly inescapable), I think a healthy cross-cultural exchange can be of the utmost importance. (And cultures, I found it reassuring to remember, are not static but living, and therefore always somewhat shifting and evolving – not just in our modern age of “the global village,” but as a constant, as a course of nature…)
It was a bit to my surprise that I felt such an affinity towards Ghana again, and towards its people. But once again, retrospectively, it felt like… home. And now, as I was preparing to leave Guinea, already I was planning to return to Ghana, to explore some new places I had heard about that seemed a far better fit for me than Kokrobite.
Later that night, when I was finally settling into my seat on a Brussels-bound plane, I was surprised to find that the cover story of the airline’s magazine was about the growing health and wellness movement in Ghana – with both yoga and clean diet front and center in the story. And as I read the article, it seemed like another sign pointing me in the direction of Ghana as an easier place to share what I’ve learned, to contribute, to have cross-cultural experience. When I left Ghana in 2000, all I saw for myself back in America was family and education, and it had felt important to learn all I could – back then about permaculture and yoga, eventually dietary cleansing and pranic nourishment – so that I could bring it back to Ghana – to be able to contribute in what I saw as a positive, healthy way to the culture that had given me so much, that had made me so much of who I am today.
Though I did feel done with this trip, and had felt so extremely excited to get on that plane, I did not feel at all done with Africa – not even close. This trip broke the ice, but I could tell it was not nearly enough. And besides my feelings towards Africa… I was so enjoying the movement, the change, being around new people and different cultures…
As soon as I had left Alisco, his wife, and his nephews Youssouf and Sekou outside the departure hall, after sharing a heartfelt farewell with each of them (and after we had first endured a torturous two hours of crawling through traffic – and the extreme of air pollution that goes with it over there – to get to the airport)… as soon as I had stepped through the gate to the departure hall and started to walk forward on my own again, gloriously alone… I had suddenly felt so HAPPY, and lighter and lighter with each step, feeling a sense of freedom and independence returning to me. Oh, how I love to be alone! On my own! Moving through my life! Glory be! I felt so free!
As I relished the entire, long, wonderfully enjoyable journey home, I luxuriated in all the space I felt, even in my typically tiny seat aboard two full flights – plenty of space in which to feel my whole self, and my movement along my path. I loved the new airports through which I passed (especially Conakry’s sweetest of small airports – could be my all-time favorite), enjoyed learning about new countries from the African men sitting beside me on my flights, watched movies, wrote… And I could feel the travel bug stirring inside me, making its way to my heart, preparing to pull the strings and steer me towards another trip. “Yes, you still love traveling!” my inner guide shouted at me. “Keep going!”
As much as I have loved finally finding some sense of settlement and home and community in Santa Cruz, there’s something about feeling my little self loose out in the big world, beyond the safe embrace of my sweet community, that just makes me feel so… alive!
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...