The Return-Mabel’s Story

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The return – Mabel’s Story

When I was 19, my younger sister was “sent” to Ghana for misbehaving during her preteen years. I was actually envious of her punishment and could only dream up what it would be like live in Ghana—what experiences would she face? Thankfully, my time came to stay in Ghana long-term; no punishment needed, instead, for a great reward. I took a year off from work to teach in the Eastern Region and every moment was surreal. Of course, I looked forward to the obvious treats such as beaches and fresh, delicious food. But “returning” home meant a chance for me to bond with my extended family. Going back forced me to speak a language that I never had to converse in for more than 5 minutes. Being back in Ghana was a true test to my character and confidence as a young woman—I was constantly questioning myself on what do you want to learn from this experience?

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Returning home was such a huge conundrum for me. I didn’t know how to feel about going to Ghana for a long term period. First, I wasn’t really going “back”. I was born and raised in the States to Ghanaian parents but was raised with such strong Ghanaian ideals, my birth certificate only confirmed my citizenship status— in my heart and in all aspects of my life, I was a Ghanaian. After visiting Ghana for the first time as a teenager, I just knew I had to return and I really wanted to get to the core of my history. I wanted to move past the obviously exciting tourist stage and have an experience that was meaningful and life-changing.

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What did I want to gain from teaching in Ghana for a year? Was it to gain an invisible award for doing what very few westernized African youth seek out to do? Or was it the personal satisfaction of saying that “Yes! I had to cook in the dark daily, live without water, travel by tro-tro successfully—and I made it out alive! What about you?!!” No, returning  and working back home was necessary. I needed it. I already define myself as a humble person but the experience truly allowed me to be grateful for all my parents did for my life and for the opportunities I have as a US Citizen.

thereturnmabelsstory6But truly, going back home confirmed in my heart that I truly have a purpose and role in the Ghanaian community. In spite of the difficulties I faced, I cannot recall any personal annoyance I faced in Ghana. Of course, there were some days I couldn’t bear the constant “light off” but that was made up with fun nights playing ludo  with neighbors or listening to bushbabies make strange noises as I fall asleep. I can’t recall any frustration I felt, I can only recall the happy faces of my students when they finally understood how a preposition worked in a sentence or they were able to enter the exam room with confidence to write an English paper. I can only sense my grandmother’s joy when I returned to Kumasi for the weekends, ready to eat her fufu and watch television with her until we both fell asleep. My long-term stay in Ghana was not my first return but it was the first time I truly had a chance to be a Ghanaian and with no reservations.

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Now that I’m back in the States, I at times feel physically ill with homesickness. I stop in my tracks and try to remember phrases, smells, and sights that intrigued me on so many levels. At times I remember, at times I do not. I long for that simplicity of life, the easy access of delicious food, and the warm smiles I encounter on my daily stroll in krom. Of course, I may see Ghana with rose-colored lens but overall, I am well aware of the blessings and struggles of living in Africa and it doesn’t me phase in the least. I will surely drop everything to return to Ghana permanently if I could. I have an amazing husband who will do the same thing (given the right circumstances). That time may not be now but when it comes, I am proud to say that I will be ready. Happy and ready.

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The Return-”Sweet Sweet Salone!”-Zainab’s Story

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My Sierra Leonean friend Zainab on her return trip to Sierra Leone

At age six, my mother and I arrived in the US from Sierra Leone. She planned on us staying for just few months while she sought medical treatment.  It was a short visit that lasted eighteen years.  In December 2010 I returned to my birthplace to attend my sister’s wedding. Having left Sierra Leone as a child I had vague memories of my country, family members, friends, and loved ones. Nonetheless, memories of my childhood days lingered in my mind, as I grew older.

As I embarked on my journey, I was hesitant and somewhat frightened as I was filled with distorted stories about the country and its safety. Contrary to what I was told, I had a wonderful experience and a great time. Sierra Leone is such a beautiful country and the people are exceptionally welcoming.

As I explored the city with my siblings, I was covered with emotions from seeing evidence of the long years of civil war. The east end of the city was the area hit the hardest during the war. I was overcome with sorrow and overwhelmed by the destruction and carnage committed by rebels. Despite it all, the people cast the past behind them and are living a cheerful life. What stood out to me was the resilience, courage and hope of the people, which made me love Sierra Leone even more.

I enjoyed the walks to the city center, especially the boys who sold items along the roads to drivers in their cars. Almost every item you could need you could get, from hangers to snacks and hand towels. I spent most of my life in the U.S. and I had never once visited a beach. I had the opportunity to do so on my return to my motherland. One cannot visit Sierra Leone without enjoying its remarkable beaches.

Lumley

Lumley beach, Sierra Leone

No. 2 River Beach, Sierra Leone

2 River Beach, Sierra Leone

I would definitely go back and live in Sierra Leone (with occasional trips other places). But since going back, I see myself working there and raising my children there. I love the simple living that is ‘Mama Salone!’ Before I returned I never thought of Salone as a place I wanted to live. My mind was focused on life here, in the States. But during my most recent trip in 2012, I fell more in love with with the country and I would go tomorrow if I could, but I have to prepare my self to do so. It’s currently a goal in progress. 
I see myself contributing as a returnee by working for a non-profit that specializes in empowering women thru micro-finance. Nothing has to change for me to go back. I accept that basic things in the US are a luxury in Africa, so I’ll adjust accordingly.
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I long for the fresh fish and coconut water from my sweet Salone! I can’t wait for my next trip!
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Ghana Days-A pivotal Experience

Ghana Family

My family: mom, stepdad, little brother and adopted sister. 10 years ago.

It’s been ten years since I visited Ghana. I’ve finished school, gotten married, and had a couple of babies in that time. God, where’d the time go?!

Going back now is an opportunity to see the country with fresh eyes; more forgiving eyes. I’m excited!

My first impression of Ghana as an eleven year old was fear mixed with a bit of irritation at the hot, humid, suffocating heat that clung to my being when we landed and exited the plane. I gawked at red dusty roads, and worn out buildings which I’m sure was stunning during Ghana’s hay day, in the 60s. Ghana looked nothing like America. I missed D.C.’s smog, coffee, gasoline smell. The distinct musk of exposed gutters, sea breeze, grilled fish, camphor, and wax cloth I smelled when we arrived made me scrunch up my nose—and hope it didn’t bleed. I knew then, why my grandmother’s suitcase smelled the way it did when she visited us in America.

I left for Ghana oblivious to how cities can be drastically different from one another. I thought everywhere looked like America. I was a child, but I was old enough to observe the contrast, and I didn’t like this hot, sticky, vastly different world we had plunged into, October 11, 1994.

This place wasn’t home at all…

I remember how frail and thin I became the first couple of weeks in Ghana. Surprisingly, I didn’t suffer an asthma attack, but my nose routinely bled. That is, until my aunt Esther cauterized my nostrils with the juice of some smushed up leaves of a random plant from the front yard of our Teshie Nungua flat. The juice burned like fire up my nose, and my nose bleeds miraculously stopped. Forever.

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My mother thought I was sick…I was just adjusting I guess. 1994

I remember my first meal. A smooth yellow sticky ball of pounded mass peeked out of an orange soup, topped with beef, fish, snails and a hairy crab. Otherwise known as “fufu”. I was so hungry after the long journey that I dug in and ate my little belly out…until I got to the the hairy crab.

I had never seen a crab’s claws covered with stubble. Short black bristles of hair grew out of its pincer shell! I had just enjoyed the best fufu I had ever had in my life; nothing like the powdery stuff mom mixed on the stove back home. But this crab looked nothing like the crabs I remember buying at the wharf in D.C. every summer with mom and dad.

Every June, we’d come home with a bushel of Maryland Blue Crabs and mom would smother them in a spicy mixture of blended onions, tomatoes, pepper and peanut butter, then dad would throw them on the grill. Those were the days…before the divorce that forced us to move here…to the place with the hairy crabs. I was disgusted and sad…and half full—I lost my appetite.

I struggled to understand the language. Everyone thought I spoke strange English. Especially the kids at my new school. It seemed like everyone was different, or maybe I was the weird one. I remember that time Radiatu, the new house help, and I got lost one night walking back from my tutor’s house. Talk about the blind leading the blind! Radiatu was Hausa, from the north of Ghana. She couldn’t speak Twi or Fante very well. I could only speak English. We communicated through a series of body languages: hand gestures, facial expressions, grunts, and charades. Well, on this particular evening (it was dark as hell, no street lights, just kerosene lamps of the sellers on the road), we couldn’t find our way back home and charades weren’t working.

We walked for hours and I was a paranoid-stricken, terrified, mess. After a running, screaming, half-walking-half-jogging roundabout we found our way back to our house with my heart in my mouth. Mom was in the living room having a conversation with her sister, Auntie Esther. She noticed my distress and she asked me what was wrong but fear maimed me, and I passed out at her feet.

Five years passed from that first day in Ghana to the day I left to return to The States. It felt like a lifetime, because it was. It’s a life I lived, very different from the one I knew here. It’s like I’ve lived two very different lives in one. Like Paris, my time in Ghana was pivotal. It’s a time I’m happy to have experienced.

Over those five years we shared achievements and my mom scratched out a pioneering career in Ghana. She shaped an entire industry and that’s something she did with pride, and we shared in her pride. I guess mom could be called a “returnee” in her own right.

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Can you tell I had become more confident. I guess being the “American” girl wasn’t so bad.

I grew up too. Spending my fragile formative years in a comfortable laid-back environment where I made friends easily, gave me confidence. And I thrived. I could take a serious “caning” at school, no problem; I could go across town in a tro-tro all by myself, no problem; I could hang out and go to parties, no problem; I could fetch a bucket of water; (but balancing it my head was where I drew the line) no problem. Everything was hands-on and experiential and it was so much easier to be open to it all as a kid.

I budded, blossomed and grew thorns in Ghana. Ghana became a part of me. I left Ghana with a world of perspective and a cultural context to hang my hat on.

ghanaian model, ghanaian girl, traditional ghanaian girl

I modeled for my mom occasionally. This time I was featured in the paper as “girl of the month” or something. (God that caption! “looking forward to a happy married life??!” The sexism is real!)

This time around, I look forward to stepping off the plane and letting the smell hit me. I look forward to the heat’s embrace, the fresh coconut water, spiced fried plantain by the kerosene-lit wayside, My grandmother’s restaurant on the beach, Elmina…and of course…getting lost and finding my way back home again.

I look forward to visiting home.

***Next week I have a short series running. My friends will share their stories of returning home after a long time. I’m inspired by these women, and I hope you find their stories as enjoyable as I do.***

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